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Capital Region resident from Morocco returns from post-earthquake visit

A Capital Region resident with strong ties to Morocco has returned from a post-earthquake visit. 

Soumya Boutin arrived in the United States in 2017 to continue her education. Schooled in Great Barrington, Boutin graduated from Emma Willard in Troy and just started college at UMass Amherst, when on September 8th, a 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck Morocco, leveling her village in the Atlas Mountains.

As WAMC reported in September, Boutin was online when she heard. She became a U.S. citizen during the pandemic and had already set up a non-profit to build a girls’ school in her village, so she decided to return there. The 18-year old left for Morocco September 13th with her adoptive mother to reconnect with her family and establish a medical clinic. Shortly after their flight landed, they went to work.

"We packed over 400 pounds of stuff, including clothes and medical products, materials that we needed," Boutin said. "My mother and I, and a friend took our trip to Morocco. It was a long, long day. We left from JFK, and got to Casablanca, and we rented out a car. Mom, who's also an orthopedic surgeon, drove us all the way there. And when we got there, the word had already spread that we're coming. So people help us get all this stuff out of the car. And we just stayed that night and connected with people and talked. All of that it was, it was really nice seeing my family all alive. And I also learned that nobody died in the village."

Winters in the Atlas Mountains are bitter, and, thinking ahead, Boutin says the group stopped in Marrakesh to pick up cold weather clothing and blankets, something the locals weren’t thinking about because temperatures were still warm. The quake left half of the village's houses uninhabitable. Boutin says her parents' home was split by a crack in the ground, making rebuilding impossible.

"One thing we're thinking about is trying to create a space for the community where it's a safe building and they can come into, and stay all day there, and there's fire and food and clothing. Just until this winter is over," said Boutin.

Electricity has been restored but cell and WiFi service remain limited.

Fluent in the obscure Amazigh dialect, Boutin had brushed up on her native language skills during a June visit home.

"When I went back this summer to just visit my family after six years, of course, I was rusty," Boutin said. "And I was mostly speaking a mixture of English, French, Amazigh and Arabic. Most people there only speak Amazigh. But after this trip, it got better over time. People didn't have a hard time understanding me, but I would mix words. Mix the languages Amazigh and Arabic. But after like talking that language 10 hours a day, trying to communicate medical terms, I think it came back, for sure."

 The eight-day post-earthquake trip hadn't been anticipated. Boutin says her adoption of Western dress and culture got mixed reviews from the villagers, as did her idea to establish a women's cooperative in the village.

"It's been very interesting, 'cause a lot of them have known me since I was a kid," said Boutin. "And I've only been back a couple of times. Most of the times actually, when I went, I expected more men to comment on what I was wearing. But I got mostly women. But after a while, I think they understood where I was coming from. Of course, there are people that were not glad to see me due to the political reasons, I would say, the politics of the village with me bringing the cooperative. I had one conversation with a guy that was totally against it. And at the end of our conversation, he was like, 'Now I understand where you're coming from, and I'm willing to help.'"

Dave Lucas: "They didn't really see you as a threat, in other words."

 "No," Boutin replied. "At the beginning, some men did. But afterwards, I think they saw what I what I want to do. And we sat down and had a conversation. And that cleared things and I think now everything is good."

Boutin is pressing on with her desire to establish the cooperative through her non-profit "Soumya's Journey." "...because women now feel like they need to have an income to help rebuild their homes. So our focus right now, or my focus, is to get that cooperative up and going. And of course, I want to go back to the Atlas Mountains and try to see how I can help. Maybe I'll go back this winter and see if we can set up that place for the community," Boutin said.

Boutin says she's back to focusing on her studies, with an eye on someday attending law school. "When something is over, you move on to the new thing. But we have to remember that people are still going through a tough time, their lives are still impacted. And so keep sharing the news. If you can donate to Soumya's Journey, we will make sure that money goes to help the community," said Boutin. 

The recent earthquake was the strongest to hit Morocco in at least 120 years. More than 2,000 deaths have been reported.The Center for Disaster Philanthropy says 380,000 people were severely affected due to their proximity (less than 30 miles from the quake’s epicenter). At least 500,000 people were displaced, with 1 million directly affected by the quake. Economic losses are expected to exceed $10.7 billion, according an estimate from the United States Geological Survey.



Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.