Ex-convict helps neighbors cope in Morocco virus lockdown

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — When the coronavirus came, Noureddine Elmihnida saw it as the scourge it was. But he also says he saw it as “an opportunity.”

It was, he says, a new chance for him and others who have lived lives of crime to redeem themselves, to step up and help their neighbors in a rundown section of Rabat, Morocco’s capital.

The North African kingdom established strict lockdown measures in early March to prevent the spread of the virus. Special permits are needed to leave the home. Some people, especially the elderly and vulnerable, found themselves stuck without food or medical supplies.

Elmihnida volunteered to do grocery shopping and fetch medication for those in need. His phone is constantly ringing with calls from neighbors or friends who know of other people seeking help. He writes down their grocery and medical requests and, armed with his permit to leave the lockdown, does their shopping.

He’s been helping others since he left prison a dozen years ago.

Ashamed of his life of crime and drugs, he wanted more than a fresh start. He wanted to make up for the pain he had inflicted on his loved ones. He had lost the respect of his community, his parents and his friends.

“My parents were ashamed of me and my actions, and I needed to make things right,” the 37-year-old said. He left prison determined not to return, and embraced “the idea of reconciliation, first with my parents who were affected the most, then with the community I grew up in.”

Together with other ex-convicts and some volunteers, he worked to make life better in El Youssoufia, a densely populated, crime-ridden neighborhood. They cleaned, painted and softened the urban grime with plantings.

And then, when the virus hit, he expanded his efforts.

“Noureddine is a kind man,” said his 60-year-old neighbor, too shy to identify himself by name. “He has helped deliver stuff to us without charge. When I couldn’t collect my medicine from the clinic, he did. God bless him.”

Those services won the former convict recognition among more well-off residents who make donations — money that Elmihnida distributes to the poor.

“I swore to God not to take any money for my services,” he said.

On April 5, the Justice Ministry announced a pardon by King Mohammed VI for 5,654 prisoners to limit the spread of the virus in prisons. Mohsen Harmati, one of those set free, began volunteering that day with Elmihnida.

“Noureddine was a troublemaker for 10 years, but he’s a changed man now. He has helped paint the neighborhood and plant it, and now he’s helping people at the most needy of times,” Harmati said.

All that work continues. And Elmihnida also checks on migrants who camp out in the neighborhood, their dreams of trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Spain scuttled by border closures.

Elmihnida knows that his constant errands increase his risk of becoming infected with the coronavirus. Morocco has nearly 4,730 cases confirmed and 173 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

“But God will protect me because he knows I’m helping people without expecting a payback,” Elmihnida said.