Loubna’s Smile

November 21, 2017

Here in Morocco, unsung heroes are everywhere. Those who make it their life-long mission to give back to those less fortunate. In honor of  Thanksgiving happening this week in the US, our team at Mushmina would like to tell the story of ‘Association Hadaf’, in the capital city of Rabat during this month of giving and gratitude. This unique organization has a touching, personal story and a massive heart.

20 years ago, Mrs. Amina Msefer, opened the Association Hadaf, which translates to ‘goal’ or ‘objective’ in Arabic, after years of unsuccessfully seeking a feasible post-school option for her daughter, Loubna. Loubna was born with disabilities. Amina, like so many other parents of disabled young adults, found herself in a heart-wrenching position: there was no place for her daughter to go as an adult.

Even before adulthood, Moroccan law requires schools to accept handicapped children but in reality, schools in the kingdom cannot realistically adapt to the needs of these children. The cost is too much. There is also a social stigma that is slow to change. And most certainly an unknowing; perhaps even an ignorance of what it means to be disabled.

If a disabled child in Morocco is lucky enough to have a family who has the financial means to send him or her to school, there is still the enormous looming question mark of what to do after that education has finished. At the time of Loubna’s youth, there was nothing for families like Amina’s with a disabled young adult.

When Amina was pregnant with Loubna, she was diagnosed with toxoplasmosis; an infection that is extremely dangerous for a fetus. Amina’s daughter was born with several physical and mental disabilities as a result; the most severe being epilepsy. Specialists told the mother of three children that her infant daughter would not walk, talk and that she would be blind by adolescence. Her life expectancy was dire. But Amina did not give up on hope for Loubna. Instead, she persisted. And Loubna’s family rallied around her. At that moment, the young mother had a genius revelation. She decided that she would counter Loubna’s degenerative disability and already weak vision by teaching her to focus on her other senses, as her eyes were quickly growing useless.

By the time Loubna reached 20 years, she was legally blind. But thanks to her mother’s wise groundwork, Loubna was prepared. She reads braille. She has an incredible sense of touch. In fact, she is now trained in massage and has clients with whom she works at the center. Her family considers this a victory, not a failure. In Amina’s words, “Our family feels that we have won. Louba is thriving. She beat all of the medical odds. She has the least strength of all of us physically and medically, but in the end, she has proven to be the most powerful.”  Loubna speaks French and Arabic and some Spanish, she has a prodigy’s memory in mental calculation, she plays the piano and is talented in IT skills. Loubna is also very social; she is the heart and soul of the center, and she is a “real sweetheart”, as her mother puts it.

Ironically, Amina feels that Loubna gives her the strength and inspiration to fight for her daughter and other families in their position.

Amina has also found comfort in many other parents and families in the same situation; those with disabled children. These people have become her allies, her support, her colleagues, her friends. Eventually, they would collaborate to open an innovative learning and development center for young adults with disabilities; with Amina at the realm. Each family is inspired by their unique child. And each child just wants validation and acceptance into society.

After many years of thought, preparation, research and hard work, Amina and her team of parent volunteers opened the Association Hadaf on October 3, 1997 in accordance with the Moroccan League for the Protection of Children. Her work-space was about the size of a large closet-about 12 square meters. But she persevered. The center was tiny. Amina had a dream and a passion and a fire within her. She wanted other young adults; not just Loubna, to have a place where they could learn and thrive after leaving school. A place where they were safe; a setting where they were affirmed and cherished. An environment where they could learn and feel respected.

In 2005, the center moved to a much larger building in the neighborhood of Hay Nahda, Rabat. It is so much more than just a learning institution. The center is a shining light of empathy and tolerance. It is a place where grins are infectious and the validation of learning a trade is taken very seriously.

Association Hadaf runs on donations. It is a well-oiled machine, thanks to the dedication of Amina and her board of trustees. She is the foundation, so to speak, of the structure, but humbly, she would tell you that the students are the ones who make it function. It’s true. And the staff, specially-trained and certified, aren’t just employees. They care for but they care about these young people. This is clear as soon as you walk through the doors. There is a vibrance and cheer to the air; it is obvious that everyone wants to be there. It is a mission for everyone.

The students, who come from home between 8 am and 5 pm, are admitted to the center from age 16.5 years until the age of 24 years old. There is a rigorous application process because places are limited. Realistically, Amina tells me that they have students who are even 40 years old. Because where else would they go? Once they come to the center, they aren’t going to leave. And the association certainly would never kick them out. Maybe a handful can go out and get a job with their training in a bakery or a garden (with supervision), but most of them, 95 total, will stay. They are home.

The center teaches them formal training of cooking, gardening, sewing + embroidery, baking, woodworking, jewelry-making, and other trades. There is even a flourishing garden where students tend to fresh herbs and vegetables for the restaurant kitchen. And these kids are focused. When I observed their workshops, there wasn’t a peep in the room. Dedicated teachers meticulously train their students step-by-step, minute-by-minute, for hours on end. The results are impressive. Association Hadaf has a fully-functional, high-end restaurant where one can go for a lovely lunch. The setting is quaint and the food is delicious. The center also has a boutique where the student’s wares are sold. Fundraising exhibitions are also occasionally held, as the center constantly needs financial support.

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Amina pauses when I ask her what her biggest challenges are.  She is thoughtful. “Respect outside of the center,” she says. She goes on to explain, “These young people yearn for acceptance in normal everyday life. Walking outside, going to the store, being with others. They want to be just like you. That’s our biggest hurdle. Showing the rest of the world that they deserve the same rights, just as everyone does.”

In the broad smiles of these students, you will find happiness. It radiates from them. Their beaming expressions are infectious. And those who visit the center find that in leaving, they too, want the right of respect and compassion for these young individuals. Ideally, the hope of Thanksgiving is alive and well here in Morocco. Appearances and judgments are left behind and tolerance and compassion are what remains. And gorgeous smiles from ear to ear.

This is why is Thanksgiving is so close to our hearts. There is no religion on Thanksgiving Day. There is no class or economic status. There is no rank or importance or hierarchy. Every American celebrates Thanksgiving. Any global citizen can enjoy Thanksgiving as well. It’s a moment for people to take a step back and to be grateful for everything; even the little things. It’s also a time for sharing kindness and humanity with those who need it most.


By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina guest blogger


Tara Fraiture, a dual British-American, had great intentions of being a professional Belgian fries taste tester in her young adulthood. When these dreams were tragically dashed (an unfortunate mayonnaise injury), she resorted to her second talent and passion of freelance writing. A former French and Spanish teacher, Tara keeps herself busy by talking to herself and dancing around the house (awesomely, I might add), when she isn’t writing or chasing kids.  She recently considered opening a Mexican take-out food truck, but she kept eating all of the guacamole + chips. Business would have been a bust. Tara recently moved to beautiful Rabat, Morocco, with her three daughters, husband, and orange cat. Caramel, aka Mr. Fuzz, doesn’t care for his resemblance to our 45th president. He is considering changing his hair color. As you might have guessed, humor is part of Tara’s mantra; in life and in her writing. As she puts it, “Writing is cheaper than therapy.” A wee bit of laughter and a touch of poignancy. The Fraiture’s have lived all over the world and liken themselves to global nomads-calling Egypt, Senegal, El Salvador and Qatar their home. Tara enjoys writing most about stories with heart, people who change the world, and women who implement change. She can’t wait to begin her Moroccan adventure with Mushmina.


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On a scorching hot, dusty day in 2004, in the rural town of Boujad in Central Morocco, former Peace Corps Volunteer and Mushmina co-founder Heather O’Neill had a life-changing, eureka moment. She witnessed a group of female weavers, seated in a circle, waiting patiently for their carefully hand-crafted rugs to be sold by an unknown middleman.

Heather recalls, “I just knew there had to be something better for women in this position. These incredibly talented artisans put their whole lives into these gorgeous rugs, day in and day out, and they were gaining so little in return. The men buying the rugs to, in turn, sell them at another souk (market), were the ones making the real profit. I realized then that I could make a huge difference. I always knew that I would gravitate towards development and helping others. But I then recognized that it would become a lifelong mission and much more than a job. I had an obligation. It became my calling.”


Many years before, as close sisters in suburban New Jersey, Heather and her younger sister Katie knew they were destined to have their own custom fashion and accessories business together. Katie would eventually become the creative and artistic designer of Mushmina; specializing in her trademark mastery of African hand-crafted accessories. Katie’s expertise in distinctive metal-smithing and textiles places her in a unique field in which women are not typically found. Heather would be the connecting force behind this inspiring business with her knowledge of business and materials sourcing and her interest in working in developing nations. The two sisters; yin and yang, best friends, and now business partners and creative collaborators were fated for Mushmina.

Heather and Katie’s mindful plan was slowly coming together. Heather had successfully completed two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco teaching small business skills to local women. Katie was a flourishing designer in New York City. Fast-forward a few more years to 2009, the sisters returned to Morocco with a business plan in their backpacks. Heather has remained in Morocco ever since. Katie continues to live in the US, but threatens (lovingly) to move to Morocco as well. After all, they are a team.

This month, in honor of Small Business Saturday, which always held on the Saturday after American Thanksgiving, the sisters have chosen to tell the story of a particularly inspirational Moroccan female small business owner.  Zohra’s story below is one of perseverance, determination and plenty of heart. Read on….


Zohra Mellouk, native Moroccan and founder of Souss Saffron, a USDA-certified organic co-op that cultivates “natural products of the Moroccan earth”-saffron, argan oil, and prickly pear seed oil, (as well as many other chemical-free products) has a similar story of dedication and epiphany when it comes to realizing her lifelong ambition of helping women in need.

Souss Saffron’s name comes from the rugged, agrarian Souss region in mid-Southern Morocco, just below the High Atlas Mountains.

Zohra grew up in Casablanca, the largest city in Morocco; she was one of eight children and had everything could possibly need as a young girl. However, her father’s story always inspired Zohra-he had come to Casablanca as a 15-year-old youth, traveling 700 km on foot from his tiny, Berber village in the Sirwa Mountains of southern Morocco. He had nothing but the clothes on his back and the wish of making a better life for himself. And that he did.

Zohra never forgot this. As a child, visiting her father’s family in Tinfat, a village so small that it inevitably blends into other miniscule hamlets in these rural mountains; the nearest large town being 180 km away in Touradant, Zohra said she witnessed “suffering on a huge scale due to unemployment and lack of schooling. But it was the women-the girls, mothers, and grandmothers who always touched me the most. I wanted to do something to give back to them. Because they were the cords that held our community together.”

Later on in life and ironically, after her retirement from a successful career in business, Zohra finally intended to bring her dream to fruition. She briefly thought of opening a guesthouse, but then, a genius idea practically dropped into her lap. Why not use what was already there, already part of the land, embedded in the people, distinctive in their livelihood? And even better, why not work with the women from her parental village? Those who needed employment, education and empowerment the most?

At first, Zohra approached a (male) cousin who immediately belittled her idea. Employ women? Of course not, he told her. Zohra then had a lightening bolt moment. She quickly realized, “We have everything already here that is essential for producing these gifts of the earth; we just need the work force. Women in this region already know how to cultivate these natural products; they have been practically doing it since they were walking, as well as caring for entire households. All they need is a little training in Western regulations. The rhythm is already there. The work ethic was put in place many years before. The experience is there now. We just need to put it into motion.”

Starting with just twelve women in 2011, Zohra now heads over 160 experienced female cultivators today in her successful co-op. The women work at home in the mornings and with Souss Saffron in the afternoons. During the height of saffron cultivation, (October-November), every able-bodied person works and reaps the benefits of the busy season. “What’s not important is the paperwork, what is necessary is that everyone has a job. A purpose. Our youngest female member is 18 and our oldest is (she thinks) 90. Everyone joins in.”

And her biggest challenge? Zohra feels personally responsible for changing as many girls’ lives as possible through education. “I feel a desperate need to send the girls of this co-op to school. The level of poverty and misery in rural villages is astounding. To keep young girls in school through their secondary education and possibly even on afterwards is my ultimate goal. At the moment, we have ten girls at a boarding school in Taroudant. This is huge accomplishment for our small cooperative. There is nothing for them in the villages unless they have been to school. More and more, their families, and even the girl’s fathers, are realizing this.”

Zohra still spends her rare moments of free time, pondering how to create more revenue; the goal being to ultimately employ additional women and send more of their young daughters to school. These thoughts keep her up at night. It’s not for her that she does this. In fact, she is incredibly humble when she talks about her business. She talks about it for the women that she is helping; not for herself. She talks about the future for the women she is supporting, not for herself.

This is what small business owners do; and particularly ones whose missions are linked to free trade and sustainability-they spend their whole lives envisioning and carrying out their dreams-they live, sleep, and breathe this hope. They don’t actually dream for themselves but for others who are less fortunate. Heather and Katie had a goal of helping women and men by empowering and leading talented groups of artisans throughout Morocco. As much as it’s a job for them and a source of income for these two sisters, it’s so much more-it’s a devotion, a duty, and a necessity. Zohra had this same relentless fire within her-to encourage Moroccan women to be independent using the resources that they know best-their land, their earth, their hands.

There is a well-known Moroccan expression, in the local language of Darija, that translates to “Drop by drop, we fill the river” (Nqta b nqta kay hml l’oued). Perhaps for Katie and Heather, this could be measured in the thick fibers of a vibrant Moroccan rug, lovingly woven by master weavers whom the Mushmina sisters have meticulously employed and empowered. And maybe for Zohra, this can be determined by delicate twines of vivid orange-yellow saffron, tenderly cultivated by her co-op of tenacious women in Zohra’s ancestral village.

-By Tara Fraiture, Mushmina guest blogger



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Just outside of Marrakech’s all encompassing magnetism is but another level of living ~Starting my day venturing away from the bustle of the souks towards the climb of the snow capped landscape of the Atlas mountains is truly soul enlivening. One of my favorite parts of our work in Morocco has become our visits with the women artisans of The Eve Branson Foundation. Their berber village along the cliffs of these majestic mountains hosts a creative center for the local community to learn and grow their artistic skills setup by the Branson family and outstanding staff.

Just before working on a project I experience this familiar inner “excitement” as to how things will go, which direction it will take and hopeful it will be successful for all of those involved…you see, every effort is that of a community here in Morocco. This trip was yet another reminder that we all need one another for survival and success to abound. It is in this humble and artistic community that I find I am continuously learning almost more than I’m teaching while I visit for a workshop. My designs are inspired by my surroundings here and it is a joy to see them translated through the handwork of the artisans in this collaborative process. Just opposite the enchanting Kasbah Tamadot Branson hotel, the foundation offers the locals programs on seamstress work, embroidery, woodworking and a now hand loom for women, traditionally a craft of men. The growth of the center is inspiring and we’re thrilled to be a part of the journey. From color theory workshops to new clothing patterns, as Mushmina grows so will our ability to provide artisan employment opportunities with a focus on women’s empowerment while offering inspired pieces in partnership with EBF and beyond.

Something I’ve learned in this unpredictable work which continues to propel me is that when you follow the pull of the universe, in this case into the lure of the mountains, you will be rewarded with confirmations. I’m easy to please and the spirit of the women I meet is reward enough but I’m not opposed to a glass of wine at the end of the day while soaking in the energy of the Atlas Mountains on the veranda of Kasbah Tamadot. Life is majestic.

Cheers,                                                                                                                                                                    Katie O’Neill                                                                                                                                             Mushmina, Creative Director

View our collections at www.mushmina.com

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Mushmina Khamas and Tea

Why do we fear what we don’t understand?

I am an American living in Morocco.  People ask me all the time if I feel safe living in the Middle East, in a country and culture far from my own. My husband is Muslim and so is 99% of the population in Morocco. I first came to North Africa 12 years ago as a Peace Corps volunteer with the mission of promoting better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served and also better understanding of other people on the part of Americans. I cannot tell you how much this experience changed my life and how grateful I am that I had the education of living in another culture. It is humbling, eye opening, and yes I feel safe. I never met a Moroccan who wouldn’t stop what they were doing to welcome a foreigner with a pot of tea.

At Mushmina, one of our goals is to create positive purpose by sustaining the beautiful traditions of cultures. Developing relationships with the artisans that we work with and with our customers promotes understanding between cultures. It is the way we promote peace in the world.

Last night  as I meditated with Deepak Chopra on healing the division between ‘us and them,’ I couldn’t help but think of the state of the world this week. Katie and I did not want to let this important subject go unaddressed. Our hearts go out to Beirut , Paris, Syria, and all individuals living in war torn countries.

It has been our experience that sometimes people generalize a group based on the actions of a small minority that painfully misrepresents so many individuals.  It’s not a race or a religion that is evil, it is individuals who have lost their purpose and have been misguided.

This is why we feel so strongly about education, empowerment, and creating opportunity in the world.

Wishing you and yours a peaceful Thanksgiving.


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Did you hear that Mushmina is moving!?

We have a new location in the lovely, Wayne PA. Join us on South Street for our final weekend and moving sale in Philadelphia.

Items under $50 -15% off, items over $50 -20% off, footwear -10% off this weekend only, jewelry over $60 -15% off

Boutique Hours at 1540 South Street:
Today Friday May 15th 5:30-8pm
Saturday 11am-8pm
Sunday 11-5pm

It’s our final weekend on South Street, but Philly don’t fret… you will see us at festivals and in our VW mobile boutique in the city this summer!

Thanks to all those who came out last night for Night Market on South Street. We are sad to go but were happy to see so many people come out to give us hugs and wish us luck at our new location.

Many thanks for all your best wishes and support!

“Trust the timing of your life!”

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We are celebrating all kinds of holidays this week!

In Morocco: Sunday was the first day of Ramadan in Morocco! This week the menu included all kinds of fresh juices (my favorites are mint lemonade and fresh orange banana juice), dates, and my famous Moroccan  ‘zeluk’ ratatouille. Click here for the recipe from a 2012 Ramadan post!

In Philadelphia and the USA: Happy 4th of July! We hope everyone has a wonderful holiday weekend with family, friends, and food.

Our shop will be closed this weekend, but check out our facebook page for online summer promotions!

Love, Heather, Katie + the Mushmina team

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Ftur ‘breakfast’ Ramadan Day One. 2014 With Heather + Mohammed in our home.

It’s been 100 years since Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Mother’s Day a national celebration! We wanted to wish all the wonderful mothers out there a wonderful day!

“Motherhood is the biggest gamble in the world. It is the glorious life force. It’s huge and scary–it’s an act of infinite optimism.” —Gilda Radner

A recap of a week dedicated to moms @ Mushmina…. enjoy this glorious Sunday!

xo Heather + Katie


Habiba and her son

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Kenza and Khowla

Khadiga and family

Khadiga and little Hiba

Zhora and her son Youseff (7)

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Our mom and grandmom, Nanny. We love you!







Know in your heart that all things are possible. We couldn’t conceive of a miracle if none had ever happened. — Libbie Fudim

Happy Sunday!

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Naema El Hami is all ‘qlbi’ or heart. Her story is a familiar one in Morocco where women of her generation were not sent to school because families did not see the value of an education for their daughters. Naema only attended school until the second grade when she was a mere 8-years old.

The unstoppable 52-year old mother of three is a local who was born and raised in Oued Zem, home to the Flying Camel Training Center and a city in Khouribga Province situated southwest of the Moroccan capital of Rabat. A true ‘Ouedzemiya,’ Naema learned to weave from her mom who spun her magic on a traditional wood loom known as a ‘minsij.’ She continued her training at the local ‘neddy’ a Moroccan training center where she learned embroidery, sewing, Rhonda traditional stitching, point de croix and hand stitching. She picked up additional skills from neighbors and friends ‘swiya b swiya’–‘little by little.’

Flying Camel Workshop Manager Kenza introduced her neighbor Naema to Mushmina as she has with many of the other artisans. When she first started with Mushmina in 2010, Naema hand-stitched scarves and wallets. A skilled and ambitious weaver, she worked on the embroidered pillow order for retailer Anthropologie in 2012.

Naema, a practical woman, realizes that her craft is also the means to earn ‘Floose!!’ (Money), she says as she laughs and a better way of life for her family. She can pay for things herself now and does not have to ask her husband for money for things that she needs. This year she plans to open her own bank account—another step toward financial independence.

A loving mother, Naema wants to see her two sons Amine 28, and Nabil 26 and her daughter Wafaa 19 succeed and be happy. Despite the fact that her two sons have diplomas as welders, they remain unemployed and this weighs on Naema. She encourages her two sons to apply each year for the American immigration lottery and uses money she earns for them to pay for the application and necessary Internet use. After all, she wants to be a grandmother and her sons can’t start a proper family until they are employed. Naema also dreams of building a beautiful house to enjoy in her later years where her grandchildren can visit and she can sip mint tea as the sun sets.

-From the series A Window to Morocco by Heather O’Neill and Yvonne King

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If I have been of service, if I have glimpsed more of the nature and essence of ultimate good, if I am inspired to reach wider horizons of thought and action, if I am at peace with myself, it has been a successful day. — Alex Noble

Soul Sunday @Mushmina!

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See more from the Spring 2014 Collection here: http://www.mushmina.com/Spring-Summer-2014

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