Back to Morocco
Hayat Essakkati grew up in the Netherlands and studied Public Administration in Leiden. She started her own company in Morocco, the country where her parents were born. 'Moroccan culture and religion are not as conservative as people in the Netherlands often think.'
What is your background?
‘My parents are Moroccan migrants from one of the most impoverished regions in Morocco, the Rif Mountains in the North; they’ve lived in the Netherlands for almost 30 years now. My mother did two years at primary school. My mom was very adamant about us getting a degree and achieving our goals as she never had that opportunity. We all went to university.
Why did you choose to study Public Administration and the Anthropology minor in Leiden?
‘Before starting at Leiden University I did a year of International Business in Rotterdam. I thought it was too commercial. Everything was about selling, selling and more selling. I knew I had an interest in business but more so in helping people and developing communities so I decided to study Public Administration. I felt it would help me understand how governments function, and the anthropology minor would give me an understanding of how societies work across the world.’
What was your student life like?
‘At the time, post 9/11, everyone always asked me about my religion, my culture and why I wasn’t wearing a veil. That bothered me because, like any other student, I was just focused on my future and not on the role of Islam in Dutch society. I I learned how to communicate with people who are very different from how I am. I was surrounded by typical students: partying, drinking and generally not concerned about the world. They were my exact opposite as I was always engaged with the world around me and my place in it. I wanted to be challenged in other ways so I got involved in all kinds of projects for young people, women and multicultural people to learn about other people outside my classroom.'
How did your career develop after you graduated in Leiden?
‘I pursued my Master’s in International Relations and Economics at Johns Hopkins University. In the first year I studied in Italy and then did the second year in the US. When I got admitted, my mom told everyone in Boskoop. Our village is a real community so everyone knew about the studies and some people even supported me financially. It taught me that countries and governments sometimes go off track but your small community will always support you regardless of whether you’re Moroccan or Dutch.
‘After my studies, I went into a whirlwind of travels for the World Bank in France, US, Morocco and for the African Development Bank in Tunisia. I finally started working on education for the IFC in Morocco and after a year started Maroc4Invest, a firm that supports foreign investors in getting into the Moroccan and African market.
What is it like, returning to your parents’ country?
‘Working for an international organization gave me time to adapt slowly to Moroccan society while having one foot in the international world. Even while I was studying, I already knew I wanted to give something back to Morocco. Although it was difficult at first in terms of who I could trust and I sometimes met up with the wrong people, I built a system of good contacts around me and I now see a positive outlook for Morocco and its role in Africa. I have become extremely proud of Morocco and of the country’s national and international efforts to hold its ground in gaining greater independence and becoming a nation of power, especially in the African continent. I no longer see Morocco as the place where only poor people live, which was my idea when I was a kid in Holland. Morocco is thriving.’
Since 2016, Leiden University has had an institute in Rabat, the NIMAR, that aims to give students and researchers the opportunity get to know Morocco and the Arab world better. What do you think of the idea?
‘I think it’s a great way of bringing students to Morocco so that they can see for themselves that Moroccan culture and religion are not as conservative as people in the Netherlands often think. An important reason for that could be that the Netherlands and Morocco, unlike the rest of the EU, don’t yet have any significant economic ties. My advice is to use the NIMAR as a centre for Dutch people who want to do business with Morocco so they can see how much opportunities there are.’