On the outskirts of Marrakesh, I sit in the courtyard of Sophie’s small dwelling, filled with trees bursting with oranges and lemons. Lila and Ava, the two-and-a-half-year-old twins, are playing and every so often climb on to their mother. Sophie Dielissen comes from Holland, is a former Waldorf pupil and lived for many years with her Moroccan husband in Geneva. There she had her own business as a financial adviser and was jetting constantly all over the world. When burnout hit her, she sold her company and in the summer of 2015 moved to Morocco with her family.
Isabella Geier | When did you first have the idea of founding a school in Marrakesh?
Sophie Dielissen | When we moved here in order to familiarise the children with their father’s culture and concentrate more on family life, we saw very quickly that the school situation for our three sons was very difficult. Since they did not speak Arabic and could not write it either, a Moroccan school was really out of the question and the French schools are pure elite schools – we didn’t want that either. So I taught the children myself at home. At some point I then began to think about setting up a school.
IG | What were the first steps?
SD | I spoke with many returnee families in our group of acquaintances and noticed that all of them faced the same problem with their children. So perhaps we might also be able to solve it together – by founding our own school. Many encouraged me and promised their support. So I did what I’m good at – I drew up a business plan. But then it became clear to me how little use that was and tore it up again. A concrete vision was much more important. And the more I thought about it, the stronger the memory of my own time in school came to life in me again and I knew: if at all, then I wanted a Waldorf school.
But how? And where? I started to reactivate my old Dutch network and asked everyone for advice and support. The response tended to be low key. Furthermore, Ava and Lila announced their arrival which additionally caused me to hesitate. Then, as if sent by heaven, we came into contact with a Moroccan who was writing her doctorate in education at the University of Marrakesh on Rudolf Steiner and who radiated enthusiasm for all things Waldorf. She promised to find teachers, train and support them, and much else. With Imane’s appearance the whole thing suddenly seemed realistic and I decided to dare to found the school. While Imane took care of finding the teachers, I looked for a building.
IG | You and Imane alone?
SD | No, there were of course the other interested families. We founded a sponsoring association with nine people. But if I’d known the way the Moroccan mills grind – precisely thirty-two times all of us together had to present ourselves at the relevant authority and each time there were new, unexpected obstacles. Once I was gripped by such desperation that I burst into tears on the spot. The official remained unmoved. Incidentally, the only permissible purpose for the association which would allow it to establish a school was to provide schooling for children from returnee families. That is why our teaching language is French and sometimes also English. Exactly one week before the school was due to open, everything finally fell into place.
IG | And what role did your husband play?
SD | Our Moroccan adventure became too risky for him after six months which is why he returned to Geneva to his secure job in order to be able to provide well for all of us. He comes as often as he can manage and then has my back completely.
IG | So what happened with the school building?
SD | A disaster! Having looked at a thousand properties which were either much too expensive or completely unsuitable, Leila, who was with us from the beginning and who is a very faithful soul and became acquainted with and appreciative of Waldorf through her aunt by marriage, a German Waldorf teacher, showed me a small farm belonging to her husband which might be suitable.
One look convinced me of the opposite: the building was in a terrible state. But my son, in contrast to me, was able to look beyond the dilapidation and vividly imagine school life in the grounds. Enthusiastically he showed me lots of possibilities offered by the location. And somehow he ignited the spark in me. I said yes. But once again there was an endless odyssey. It was not until April 2017, that is five months before the proposed opening, that all legal questions had been resolved. Only then could the renovations start. In Ramadan we had to pay the workers double their wage to keep things moving. It was a very close call.
IG | How did you finance the renovations?
SD | From the profit I made from selling my company.
IG | And the teachers?
SD | The next major problem! We could not take any of the external applicants. My hope for retired European Waldorf teachers also unfortunately came to nothing. Ultimately, all our teachers have come to us through personal recommendation from the network. And when the time for training came, Imane suddenly disappeared, apparently because of unavoidable family matters. Forever. A flop.
IG | Does that mean you prepared the teachers yourself?
SD | I had to. In two weeks. Two teachers were in your workshops in Fez and Lakhsas. With the others I worked on important passages from Steiner’s educational writings.
IG | What were your criteria for employing them?
SD | Openness towards new things, the willingness to leave their comfort zone and become involved, skills, experience, personality. Waldorf was not something I could take for granted.
IG | With how many pupils and teachers did you then start in September 2017?
SD | With 49 children and 11 teachers and pre-school teachers, some of whom were, however, only employed by the hour. There were many registrations but I was quite strict about that. The important thing for me was that it should work properly with pupils and parents. Now, in the second year of the school, we have 71 children in the kindergarten and school. We have many registrations, but I am still careful.
IG | What are you doing so that the school approaches more closely to Waldorf?
SD | The teachers’ meetings are very important. Then I arrange further training with experienced teachers and kindergarten teachers from Europe – as now with you. Training and further training is one of my biggest challenges here. And if someone moves away or becomes pregnant, then that is a disaster and we have to start over again from the beginning. Obtaining typical Waldorf materials is the next problem. But also the somewhat different understanding of commitment and punctuality. That can sometimes be pretty difficult. Another problem arises with our pupils being formally linked to the French school system.
Although we are free to have our own curriculum, the pupils only receive any kind of qualification if they are registered through the French consulate. They then have to sit regular tests which are corrected in France. That is, of course, a considerable constraint. And then there is always the constant struggle with the finances.
IG | As I see it, you are the board, janitor, chief executive, responsible for public relations, human resources, the timetable, finding replacement teachers (something you often do yourself), social worker, trainer, coach, mediator all in one person – how does that work? How do you find the strength for all that?
SD | It is debilitating. My greatest wish is indeed that the tasks should be distributed on to several shoulders. And gradually some of the people in the college of teachers are beginning to take the initiative and take care of certain areas independently. The parents are also becoming increasingly involved. Now a group has collected money, bought two lorry loads of tar and borrowed a road roller. In the holidays, that is next week, they will tar the way from the road to the school together. Fortunately I can also rely very much on my family. It is touching the way the big twins take care of the little twins. But I draw most strength from the joy which I encounter each day from the children and my colleagues. That leads me to conclude that we are on the right path.
IG | What I can certainly say is that I have never experienced a school in which pupils and parents stay on forever once lessons have finished and simply don’t want to go home. As I walked through the classrooms at half past five yesterday, there was still a boy sitting drawing in class 6. When I mentioned the time to him, he said: I just like being here very, very much.
You have thus definitely succeeded in creating a space full of life here which is gratefully received and filled by children and parents. The only thing it remains for me to say right now is to wish you and your school all the very best for the future and to invite French-speaking readers with Waldorf experience to pay you a visit here in Marrakesh with material and seminars in their luggage.