Here are some examples of my journalistic writing, ranging from investigative articles to life and style pieces. Journalism is an increasingly important medium, and I am passionate about contributing to it.
Morocco Without Slums
By: Kelsey Cochran
SIDI MOUMEN, Casablanca, Morocco — The Casablanca tram is packed tight with commuters on a weekday afternoon, tired passengers shuffling closer together to make room for the newest arrivals. As the tram journeys further and further away from the bustling port of Morocco’s most populous city, both the number of tramcar passengers and the buildings outside of its windows begin to grow smaller. A full hour after boarding the tram, Sidi Moumen is in sight. The streets are littered with forgotten food wrappers and discarded building materials, vermin and insects scurry about in broad daylight and homes are haphazardly constructed out of any material available.
To an outsider, the shantytown made famous after the 2003 Casablanca terror attacks may be off-putting, even frightening. To its residents, like 36 year-old Ahmed El Wafi, Sidi Moumen is home; “I was born there, I was raised there. What is available there cannot be available anywhere else.”
Shantytowns are improvised urban housing structures which often crop up in countries experiencing a rural exodus. In the case of Morocco, the first shantytowns emerged at the turn of the last century in Casablanca close to factories promising jobs for those who left their rural homes. In order to eradicate the country’s slums, the government program Villes sans Bidonvilles, or Cities without Slums, was created in 2004. Morocco’s efforts in slum removal were honored when then-UN Secretary General, Mr. Ban Ki Moon, gave His Majesty the King Mohamed VI the UN-Habitat Honor Award in October 2010. According to data published by the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Transition Fund in 2013, about 200,000 households were resettled as part of Villes sans Bidonvilles betweeen 2004 to 2011. The program has been so successful, in fact, that this year’s goal is to declare Tangier, Tetouan, Settat, El Brouj, Ksar Lkbir, Moulay Yacoub, Missour and Fez as slum-free cities. And by 2021, the Ministry of Urban Planning hopes to have built 800,000 affordable housing units.
However, successful data can be misleading. Methods used to move stubborn shantytown residents into “affordable” apartments have been cited as being forceful and degrading, while those who moved willingly can be kept waiting for government-subsidized housing for years. Rather than quietly complying with government orders, people from slums like Sidi Moumen are making themselves heard. From holding protests to meeting with the Ministry of Housing, Morocco’s slum population is fighting for what they deem as fair housing. The previously mentioned Ahmed El Wafi is one of those at the forefront of this fight.
Born and raised in the slums of Sidi Moumen, El Wafi is passionate about his home. El Wafi acts as the Vice President of the Association Shams Pour le Developpement Sociale, volunteers with Association Degestion du Centre Sidi Moumen and frequents non-governmental organizations like the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center to meet with citizens concerned about the housing opportunities offered by Villes sans Bidonvilles. “We are working for solutions for ourselves, we are not waiting for the [real estate] companies to come up with their solutions which will work best for them” explained El Wafi.The solution that works best for real estate developers, it seems, is to build apartments on cheap, out-of-the-way land far from Sidi Moumen. Boubker Mazoz, director of the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center, described the area provided for new affordable apartments as “removed, in remote areas where there was nothing for people to survive. It was like moving from horizontal slums to vertical slums.”
These apartments are so out of the way, in fact, that many slum-dwellers worry about losing their jobs if they accept the government’s offer of housing outside of shantytowns like Sidi Moumen. The incentive of proper housing is not worth risking a paying job when it is hard enough to find one in Morocco as it is. “We live in Sidi Moumen, and some of us will be forced to go to Mediouna, another place far from Sidi Moumen,” El Wafi begins. “The problem will be leaving our jobs and looking for another job position, because we can’t commute… People with better job positions cannot risk losing their salaries just to move to a new neighborhood.”
According to the MENA Transition Fund, the “large profit margins” achieved in the social housing program by the real estate sector has created an enormous influx in the production of affordable housing at the expense of land and tax concessions by the government. As a consequence, a gap has emerged in the production of the medium-priced housing, resulting in middle class households purchasing units from the social housing program, crowding out low-income households. Combined with little land left to develop in urban centers, this gap in availability has pushed the affordable housing projects to the outskirts of cities like Casablanca.
This marginalization of slum-dwellers is nothing new; according to Mazoz, most Moroccans, even those from Casablanca, had no idea that shantytowns such as Sidi Moumen existed in their cities. The remote areas that house the slums remained invisible until the 2003 attacks in Casablanca, when solving the issue of the slums became a top priority. Villes sans Bidonvilles was put into effect, and bulldozers rolled over shantytowns. But the government still could not see that the real issue of the slums is exclusion; “The government deals with those people as if they weren’t Moroccan citizens, as if they have plague…We feel very excluded in our relationship with the state. They try to get rid of us, that’s why they throw us in the suburbs. They try to demolish you in an indirect way,” El Wafi stated while reflecting on the relationship between the government and its people.
Relocating shantytown residents will not remove their feelings of exclusion. The government’s take on the issues faced in Sidi Moumen is that the deteriorated environment pushes people to become potential suicide bombers, so relocation is the solution. “Moving [us] from the slum areas was the only precautionary step taken by the government,” El Wafi insists. “Relocation isn’t the only solution. There must be integration and orientation.”
It seems that the complaints of Moroccans living in slums fall deaf onto their government’s ears. Though some, like Mazoz and El Wafi, have been successful in holding meetings with government officials, the general population tends to feel ignored. When expressing her aversion to the new housing area provided for people from Sidi Moumen slums, El Wafi’s mother, Mbarka, complained “The government wouldn’t hear from me; it won’t pay attention to my opinion. I wish the government could let people stay in their actual place, or give them apartments. People are miserable and literally dying.”
El Wafi himself sees the government’s hands-off approach as a factor in what makes Sidi Moumen Sidi Moumen: “We as youth, who were born here in the 80’s or even before, who grew up here, who helped in developing this whole area, I wish we could stay here. Because I witnessed all of the changes from nothing, from scratch, to all that we see in Sidi Moumen now. It’s hard for the state to provide everything from scratch. We are the people who build things from scratch. The state just gives us this kind of permission and we are the ones responsible for this industrial revolution in Sidi Moumen, for example. Sidi Moumen, without its people, is nothing. So if we move to another place, we will have to start from scratch again, That’s why we prefer to stay where we are, or closer to where we are, because we have built a life in where we are now.”
Other members of El Wafi’s family express similar wishes to stay in their home. His sister, Iman, insists that there is no difference between living in a Sidi Moumen shantytown and living in a “normal” neighborhood. Iman even fears that the close-knit community feel Sidi Moumen provides would be lost if she were to live anywhere else. If residents were authorized to build ceilings instead of tin roofs to stop the rain from coming in, she would have no quarrels with staying in her family’s shack. Iman knows that once it is time for her and her family to move, she will miss such little details of her home; “I will never forget the rain sound against the tin roof at night. That’s the first thing you’d think of when you move to a flat. That’s what my friends told me, anyway.”
Despite issues Villes sans Bidonvilles presents, blame cannot be placed solely upon the government. Caroline Abadeer, a third year PhD student at Stanford University who researches urban development in Morocco and other North African countries, maintains that it is important to consider residents hindering Villes sans Bidonvilles. Some refuse to leave the slums for nostalgic reasons, while others take advantage of the government program and move from slum to slum to acquire multiple subsidized homes. “It’s less common that people are abused by [the government initiative], though it’s easy to believe that,” Abadeer argues.
Mazoz echoes these sentiments, and calls for Moroccan citizens to take look in the mirror: “We have an expression in Arabic: ‘When the cow falls, there is an increase of knives.’ It’s difficult to put the cow down, so everybody [stands] back. Once it’s down, everybody comes with a knife. When we have a target — and the target everybody has is the government, always — nobody looks back to him or herself and says ‘Ok, what am I doing?’”
It is yet to be seen whether the Moroccan government and civil society will be able to work together to meet this year’s goal of declaring eight cities as slum-free, but clearly communication between the parties is key if anything is to be done. “Life is pending here,” El Wafi concludes. “Habitation is a basic need. I think no progress will happen before having that right guaranteed.”
As matriarch of her family, the fate of the El Wafi’s living situation rests squarely upon Mbarka’s shoulders. Since the passing of her husband 12 years ago, Mbarka has inherited the title as head of household in the government’s eyes. While 11 family members live together, an apartment solely for Mbarka was offered by the government. “If my mom, who is the head of the family, moves away, they will destroy our home because she is the one who represents this right of staying [in Sidi Moumen] until they provide a solution. If she leaves, everything goes away,” her son, Ahmed, explains.
Ahmed El Wafi first met his wife, Souad, when he was a book vendor on the streets of Sidi Moumen. Souad grew up in an apartment in Sidi Moumen with her family, but once she married Ahmed in 2016 she had to move into the slums with his family. Souad is a minority in the El Wafi family regarding her feelings toward leaving the slums; “I won’t miss anything in here. The thing that would make me happy the most is leaving this place. There’s nothing I like about this place. It is very marginalized.” Souad was very camera shy, and would only allow me to take photos of her in the kitchen.
Mohamed El Wafi, left, is the first grandchild of Mbarka. The three year-old has never been outside of the shantytown in which he resides, and is unconcerned with the prospect of having to leave home. When asked what he hopes will be available in the new apartment buildings, he responded “I just want to play.”
A child walks home from school over the rubble of a former residence in one of the expansive shantytowns of Sidi Moumen. Colorful walls, painted to brighten the inside of a home, are all that remain after government-contracted real estate developers bulldozed the former dwelling. “When the government had the ambitious program of Villes sans Bidonvilles … they had in mind the eradication of the bidonville, which was too ambitious. They wanted everything done by 2010, and we are now in 2017. We still have 30 to 40 percent here in Casablanca of the slums still remaining,” Boubker Mazoz, director of the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center says of the fast-approaching Villes sans Bidonvilles deadline. “The government comes around with that census you know, they say ok we need to build 80 apartments. Then when they come back for the distribution they find 30 new families have established themselves in area. This is why the government moves you and demolishes the place, otherwise other people will come and squat in the place and here you are. You will never finish.”
After a long day of kindergarten held at the Sidi Moumen Cultural Center, local children let loose on the playground. Outside of the gates of the center, children in Sidi Moumen do not have the luxury of a public park or playground. Instead, they make do on the dusty roads in the slums.
By Kelsey Cochran for Ms Magazine
July 10, 2017
SJ Sindu was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Massachusetts, much like the narrator of her debut novel Marriage of a Thousand Lies. The book’s relase comes on the heels of her success at the 2016 Turnbuckle Chapbook Contest—where her hybrid fiction-nonfiction chapbook I Once Met You But You Were Dead won first place.
Sindu’s debut novel follows Lucky, the narrator, as she wrestles with her two identities—being a lesbian woman and Sri Lankan daughter. The heart-wrenching tale incorporates love, loss, family, rebirth and growth to tell a captivating story you won’t be able to put down.
The novel opens with Lucky and her husband, Krishna, attending gay night at a local bar. Sindu’s vivid imagery transports the reader: the pounding music, bodies on strange bodies, sweat and beer mix into an intoxicating cocktail of self-doubt and sexual freedom. Krishna (or Kris, as Lucky calls him) heavily foreshadows what is to come in later chapters of the book when he proposes a toast in honor of Lucky’s lost first love and childhood best friend, Nisha, after Lucky turns down possible hookups for the night.
Lucky and Kris return to their home, partnerless, when Lucky’s step-mother calls with news that her grandmother has fallen down the stairs. Lucky return to Boston and stays with her mother to help look after her grandmother while she heals, and while back home she learns that Nisha is getting married. Lucky’s mother insists she reconnect with Nisha, and once they begin spending more time together their former feelings bubble once more to the surface.
The restrictive and traditional views Lucky faces at home plague every page. Lucky and Nisha hide in corners, both wishing to keep the status quo and run away and be free to love who they want. As the story progresses, the need to choose—to continue to lie to their families for the sake of their comfort or to come out and be their true selves—crescendos and suddenly comes to a crash.
We are only given small remarks in the beginning, hinting at family dynamic and ignored memories. As time goes on, winter encroaches on Boston and a story is woven. The complicated family tapestry slowly comes together, yet as soon as we understand it the strings come undone.
By Kelsey Cochran for The Bay Weekly
August 8, 2016
Twin Beach Players has unusual success in getting kids to say what’s on their minds. Over 11 years, youngsters from elementary to high school have taken to the Kids Playwright Festival stage, writing plays that describe the world as they know it. The Player and the Festival are “safe spaces for kids of all backgrounds to express themselves,” says company president Sid Curl. “Kids feel they can be themselves and have fun doing it.”
At the same time, the annual competition and festival introduce young people to the camaraderie and teamwork needed to get live theater productions to work. From Kids Playwright Festival, alums have even made it big, with internationally published plays, small roles on popular shows like House of Cards and original plays on the Charm City scene. Six-dozen aspiring thespians are creating this year’s festival, as authors, actors and stage hands. Two dozen submitted plays. Half a dozen — all girls — earned the honor of seeing their words come to life in the words and gestures of actors in front of families and friends. That talented cadre also earns cash prizes of $100. After three years of acting, recent home-schooled high school grad Taylor Baker tried her hand at play writing this year. Objection! won, she says, because it not only “breaks the fourth wall — drawing the audience in — but also is funny.”
Sisterly competition brought younger sister Sidney Baker to this year’s stage with Shoes, Pizzas and Spirits. “It’s a twist on A Christmas Carol,” she says, created to please theatergoers who, like herself, tire of the same old play every December. Rising Northern High School ninth grader Leah Hartley is a two-time winner. Last year she wrote about art and friendship. This year’s Science Mistakes was a challenging new subject for her. And, she thought, for the competition because, she says, “nobody writes about science.”
Cousin Elizabeth Kieckhefer, a home-schooled sixth grader, tracked her with Amber’s Science Lesson. Science would have been a natural subject for aspiring meteorologist Lucie Boyd, a seventh grader at Northern Middle School, and second-time Festival winner. A couple of years back, her play about meteorologist Doug Hill won a countywide school competition. Instead, for this year’s festival she wrote a sequel to her last year’s winner. “I love reading mysteries and learning about history in school,” she says. The Mystery of the Hum of Nachitti combines both interests.
Sadie Storm, a seventh grader at Plum Point Middle School, is the most experienced Twin Beach Player, with the company since second grade. As an actress, Sadie poured her heart into her roles. One of her proudest moments was her director’s praise for her work in a very small part. “Passionate about social change,” her debut as a playwright is Changes, a play about bullying that, she hopes, is “better than the boring ones she sees at school."