In 1991 Cindy Mitchell traveled to Casablanca for the Chicago Sister Cities Program. While there, she toured the 276-bed Ibn Rochd Children’s Hospital, an enormous complex of many buildings erected around the turn of the century by the French when they occupied Morocco.

“The first time I saw the hospital, I was struck by its stark appearance,” she recalls. “For both the maternity and children’s wards, there were only five incubators and two X-ray machines, one of which was 30 years old. The surgery tables and lamps were very old, and most beds were bought before World War II.”

Ibn Rochd not only serves the five million people of Casablanca but those living in the 37,000 villages of the country as well. The pediatric and maternity units are blocks apart. “There are no ambulances to transport sick babies,” Mitchell says. “If it’s cold outside, the child may get hypothermia and die en route.”

In 1994 the Sister Cities program embarked on a five-year joint venture with the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center to upgrade the training of doctors and nurses at Ibn Rochd’s pediatric and maternity hospitals. Doctors at UIC, through an extensive series of staff exchanges, wanted to help create a program at Ibn Rochd that would have a long-term effect on Moroccan children’s health. They also wanted to provide the hospital with new and recycled medical equipment.

Great strides have been made since the partnership began. According to Mitchell, now chair of the city’s Casablanca committee, mortality rates have fallen, especially in the area of premature births. “Prior to this exchange the hospital was unable to care for any premature baby weighing under four pounds,” she says. “After a three-month training course at UIC last summer, medical personnel from the hospital were able to establish a neonatal unit for the treatment of premature babies.”

To help purchase equipment and fund the program, the Casablanca committee is sponsoring a two-day Moroccan marketplace and festival next week at the Chicago Cultural Center. The marketplace will offer items ranging in price from a few dollars to several thousand.

“We really tried to re-create the feeling of a souk, or marketplace,” says Mimi Frankel, a committee member. There’ll be religious items, painted chests, pottery, rugs, children’s caftans, and handwoven pillows–all representing different regions and cultures of Morocco. “The pottery made in Fez, for example, is totally different than that made in Safi,” Frankel says. “The patterning and coloring of the pots are unique to each town. Every Moroccan village has its own tradition.”

Frankel and Mitchell say they’re hoping to buy medical equipment, computers, and textbooks with proceeds from the sale. The committee will also continue to send medical personnel from Chicago to Morocco.

In addition to the sale, the group is sponsoring various lectures, concerts, films, and cooking demonstrations next week as part of the Cultural Center’s “A World in a Weekend” series. The Moroccan marketplace and festival will be held Thursday, September 11, from 10:30 to 7, and next Friday, September 12, from 10:30 to 9, at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; for more information, call 312-744-8074. The “World in a Weekend” offerings happen next Saturday, September 13, from 10 to 5, and next Sunday, September 14, from noon to 5; call 312-744-6630. –Carla Beecher

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Cindy Mitchell photo by Robert Drea.