Nora Fitzgerald Belahcen is a "champion of change". The entrepreneur, who uses food to empower disadvantaged women in Morocco, was awarded as such by the World's 50 Best Restaurants group.
Belahcen is the founder of Amal, a restaurant-turned-social enterprise in Marrakech, which provides free culinary training to Arab women, often single mothers, bereft of financial opportunities for themselves and their families.
In 2013, Belahcen opened Amal in the neighbourhood of Gueliz, where students would work alongside staff to learn cooking and hospitality skills first-hand. The aim was to train them for a few months and help them secure jobs in the food industry.
The restaurant could only take up to 15 students at a time, but Belahcen wanted to scale it up. In 2016, she opened the company's catering unit at another location in the city, allowing her to accept more female students.
Since its inception, Amal has helped 320 underprivileged women in the city, with about 30 graduating each month.
When ssked why she decided to make this her life purpose, Belahcen tells The National: “Out of love. It's just been a labour of love since the beginning. It's also about being aware of the privileges I may have that a lot of people don't.”
Belahcen adds it's been rewarding to see former students succeed after their training. “It's lovely to visit some restaurants in Marrakesh and find our former students working there. To see them in all of their strengths and power, that's amazing. I remember, one of our first graduates back in 2014 came back after she got her first paycheck and donated kitchen equipment.
“I'm blown away every day by them and their stories. It's just so rewarding.”
The impact of Belahcen's passion does not end within the kitchen walls. A lot of times, she says, staff provide other kinds of support to their students, such as housing or medical attention.
“You cannot ignore these things. We want our students to succeed, and sometimes it takes something extra to help them do that,” she says.
Ultimately, the goal is to “help women undergo a holistic transformation”, not just professional but personal, so they are comfortable “taking up space in society”.
Amal's latest project is a cafe in Marrakech staffed by women who are hearing-impaired. The Sign Language Cafe is at the Centre for Language and Culture, which has about 4,000 students. It acts as a prototype for deaf-run businesses.
The idea of the cafe came about in 2018 when Belahcen encountered a cohort of Amal students with eight deaf women.
“A lot of our hearing staff members had to learn sign language, and to see them interact with one another was a beautiful experience,” she says. “When they graduated, we couldn't find any employers who would give them a chance, so we decided to create a small cafe so we could hire them ourselves.”
Belahcen, who was born to American parents who moved to Morocco in the 1970s, has come a long way. Amal's three locations are self-sustaining, with the profits being used to pay rent and salaries, while giving students living allowances during their training.
Belahcen hopes the Champions of Change award will allow her to galvanise more support and continue helping women in Morocco.
Champions in Los Angeles
She shares the accolade with Othon Nolasco and Damian Diaz, who run No Us Without You LA, Los Angeles, which provides food relief to undocumented restaurant and bar workers in California.
Aside from relief packages, the organisation also offers advisory services to their families who cannot seek government assistance due to their status.
“Undocumented back-of-house workers are the heart and soul of the restaurant and bar industry, but are often treated as dispensable,” say the pair.
“No Us Without You LA offers food relief packages as a way to show that they are not forgotten. They are seen, heard and respected. We are proud to feed those who have fed us for years.”
The organisation started with a community of 30 undocumented workers and their dependents in early 2020, using the founders' money. Now, it supports about 700 families per month across Los Angeles County with 85 volunteers. Nolasco and Diaz transformed an abandoned space in the city into an organic garden for their food packages.
The Champions of Change award was first launched by The World's 50 Best group in 2021 to recognise the unsung heroes of the food and hospitality sectors – those who are engaged in positive work that uplifts and empowers underprivileged groups in society.
The winners receive financial donations from The World's 50 Best to support their projects. They will also be honoured at a ceremony in Valencia, Spain, on June 20.