In the summer of 2012, Maha Laziri walked into the small, humble home of a woman who had nearly died that day.
Laziri, who is now a student in the Graduate School of Education, was in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, organizing the renovation of a local school in the village of Ichbeken. She had arrived early to the work site that morning, expecting to find five or six volunteers from the community waiting to help with the renovations. Instead she was met with the news that a woman in the village was bleeding to death after giving birth to a healthy baby.
Hospitals and helicopter lifts were not options for the people of Ichbeken. The women of the village could only do their best to care for the struggling mother, and miraculously, she survived.
As she was recovering, Laziri went to her bedside to voice her concern. Despite the language barrier — Laziri was not fluent in the village’s indigenous language — she expressed to the mother that she and her team were worried about her and interested in helping.
The mother, who was grateful for the work Laziri was already doing in the community, responded by placing her baby in Laziri’s arms and asking her to name the child.
Laziri was only 22 years old at the time and felt daunted by the responsibility. She resisted, but the mother was adamant. Finally, Laziri agreed and named the baby girl Hayet.
“It means life,” Laziri said.
Because of the work she has done in Morocco, Laziri was named to Arabian Business magazine’s list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Arab Women earlier this month. She earned the number 17 slot for founding Teach4Morocco, a non-governmental organization with the mission to improve educational conditions and prospects in Morocco.
She founded the organization as a 20-year-old college student at Al Akhawayn University, where she earned her Bachelor’s degree in International Studies. Currently 24, Laziri is the youngest woman on the Arabian Business ranking and she is the highest listed Moroccan.
When the magazine first informed her that she was included on the list, Laziri thought the email was spam. She felt a bit uncomfortable with the ranking, especially with the word “power.”
“I’ve always been critical of people who portray themselves instead of their causes,” Laziri said. “It was really hard for me to see my face all over newspapers as the most powerful woman in Morocco. I don’t even go to Pottruck!”
Tifawt Belaïd, one of the original members of the Teach4Morocco team, has known Laziri since they were in kindergarten together. Belaïd was unsurprised by Laziri’s humbleness upon receiving the ranking.
“She always had that huge urge to do right when she sees wrong. And while she will do everything she can to help, she will do it in the most humble way possible,” Belaïd said. “Very often she would go through a lot but never complain, and accomplish a lot but never boast.”
Despite her modest attitude, Dan Wagner, director of the International Educational Development Program in which Laziri is enrolled, also praised her achievements.
“Her work in education at the local level in the rural mountain areas of Morocco has set a high standard for what can be done through partnerships with local communities,” Wagner said in an email.
Every summer since she turned 12, Laziri traveled to villages in the High Atlas Mountains — where many families live without basics, such as electricity and running water — initially as a tourist with her parents, but in later years as a volunteer.
“This was my first exposure to the lack of basics in Morocco, and I think it was very shocking to me,” she said, looking at a photograph of herself at age 12, sitting with four young children from the village. “It was really a turning point in my life trajectory.”
Laziri was stunned by the absence of education in the area and felt the need to make a difference. But as a teenager the only solutions she could think of were providing school supplies to children.
Eight years after her first visit to the villages, Laziri and her parents — both teachers — drew up the paperwork for Teach4Morocco. The first people she recruited to her team were her closest friends.
“We built the organization with high levels of trust,” Laziri said.
Belaïd, the team’s coordinator of communication and public relations, praised Laziri’s leadership in the organization.
“She’s very open-minded to all opinions when she’s in a group, be it the members or the villagers we work with,” Belaïd said. “She doesn’t try to impose herself as the one in charge — she does her best and is eager to learn from everyone around her.”
In 2012, Laziri and her teammates, along with students from a like-minded French NGO, traveled to Ichbeken, where they renovated the local school, installing bathrooms, water and electricity, insulating the roofs and creating a school garden. They will return to the village in future summers to host summer camps for the students.
“Our approach is we always go back where we start,” Laziri said. “I’m personally against the idea of building something and then leaving.”
She is currently designing summer camp curriculums that teach art, sports, science and analytical and English skills — key areas not well-developed in current village schools — to fill gaps in education for local students.
“We’re not here to replace the governmental system of education because we do not have the means or the skills,” Laziri said. “We’re just here to complement it in regions where it’s failing to give proper service.”
Laziri believes that her year as a GSE student has given her a better perspective on how to improve education. After receiving her Master of Education degree this semester, she hopes to travel the world to see how other nations implement educational strategies.
“She doesn’t do much talking and focuses more on real actions,” Belaïd said about Laziri. “She’s not doing what she does to show off, but to truly help improve these people’s conditions and see actual changes happen.”
At Penn, Laziri has also made an impact on Gregory College House, where she is a graduate advisor as well as the director of the Maison Francaise residential program, leading two discussions in French each week. Enrolled students receive academic credit, which makes running the program “a considerable responsibility,” Gregory House Dean Christopher Donovan said.
“The feedback from the residents in her hall and the participants in Maison Francaise has been uniformly enthusiastic,” Donovan said in an email. “Students call her ‘a great friend’ and praise her approachability, investment in the community and patience as an instructor.”
Laziri said that she truly considers Gregory a home and thinks of her students as close friends.
“My students in the French House and the Gregory House are my biggest source of motivation and inspiration,” she said. “I say with a lot of confidence — they are going to do great things.”
Laziri’s ability to forge strong personal connections with others allows her team’s work in Moroccan schools to be so meaningful. One of her most moving memories of working in the villages was watching her teammate — a student who only spoke Japanese and English — sit down with a group of elderly Moroccan women and have a meaningful conversation with them for an hour. Laziri said that remembering this moment, as well as the day she named the baby Hayet, brings tears to her eyes.
“As a person, these are events that marked me,” she said. “If you design these programs in a way where you’re highly respectful of the environment you’re going to, it’s a very beautiful human exchange.”