Peace Corps, up close and personal – I

On top of the world at 13,650 feet, Mt. Toubkal, Toubkal National Park, Morocco

Then one day, about a year into her job, she found herself in a very cold river watching her 40 year-old boss go under water to take samples, and she realized she was heading for the same chilly future . . .

At 26, Dawn Hamil had created the life she wanted. She had a BS from the University of California Davis in Environmental Planning and Management. Before graduating, she had landed a full-time job as an environmental consultant that included interesting field work, which sometimes involved exciting helicopter rides and swimming in remote river basins in the mountains of California. She was living the good life.

Dawn had plans to round-out her personal and professional experiences with international travel but wasn’t sure how to overcome her lack of funds or that she felt timid about going solo. Then one day, about a year into her job, she found herself in a very cold river watching her 40-year-old boss go under water to take samples, and she realized she was heading for the same chilly future. She decided to change her life, and applied for the Peace Corps (PC).

Nine months later, Dawn found herself in Toubkal National Park in the mountains of Morocco where she lived and worked for the next three years, 1993 to 1996. She enjoyed her life in Morocco so much, she extended her PC service there for one year*, and along the way realized she was no longer afraid of going solo – anywhere.

Favorite memory of living in Morocco? (Too hard to pick just one!)

  • Ramadan and never spending a night alone the entire month. Ramadan is amazing in-country.
  • Hiking over the High Atlas Mountains with a previous PC Volunteer. We hiked over a pass at 10,000 feet and descended into the next valley, found shelter in a village and then walked until we found a truck to take us back.
  • The food. All the food is delicious!
  • How happy people were. They were what we would consider poor and had to work very hard, but they were incredibly happy.
  • Receiving a grant from the World Wide Fund for Nature to provide animal guide books in French for the park and local nature guides.
Amazing meals from kitchens the size of cupboards and one burner!


Funniest memory?

Realizing about a year into my service that some of the people, who were putting up with my funny Arabic actually spoke English! My Arabic is still funny, but I appreciate that I had such kind help along the way.

Best thing about being a Peace Corps Volunteer?

Being able to learn about another culture by living day-to-day with the people of that culture is truly enriching.

Least favorite thing about being a Peace Corps Volunteer?

The hard days, but I suppose those made the good days better. I got a great deal of attention for being an American, and people sometimes bugged me about it or acted like they knew me, when they didn’t.

Biggest surprise you experienced about yourself, Peace Corps or your service country?

  • How much I enjoyed being in the High Atlas Mountains in a Moroccan village.
  • Confirming that we as Americans are often very one-sided with how we look at life.  EX: That because a person cannot read or write they are not intelligent; I met guides, who could not read or write but could speak and converse fluently in five or six different languages.

What did you miss most about the States?

Movies in English

Best thing about Morocco?

The people and the environment. Everyone was very kind and welcoming, and I fell in love with the mountains and Marrakech.

Did your Peace Corps service change you? If so, how? 

Yes, more than I could have imagined. On one of those “hard” days when I was in Marrakech getting more attention than I wanted, I was buying film and a young man approached and asked me if I worked at the park. I answered him brusquely, but as it turned out he was asking for a friend whose brother did work in the park and knew previous volunteers and had pointed me out before. The friend, who I was introduced to, is now my husband, Abdellah.

Dawn and Abdellah

We’ve been married for 15 years, and have three wonderful children, Zak-11, Khaled-9 and Norah-almost 7. The boys have been to Morocco twice, Norah has been there once.  We manage to get back every four or five years.

The Hamil family, living in America.
Zak, Norah and Khaled at the Saadian Tombs, Marrakech, Morocco 2007 

In addition, a partner Volunteer created the High Atlas Foundation (HAF), which continues to work in Morocco and the area surrounding Toubkal National Park. Our group of Peace Corps Volunteers worked in three of the seven valleys making up Toubkal National Park. We all worked for Larbi Didoqen, who is now a part of HAF. The Foundation has provided a way for us to stay-in-touch and connected to what is happening in Morocco – 15 years later. It’s amazing the friendships that are started and continue throughout life!

Still connected with some of those friends and colleagues.

Friendly disclosure: Dawn is my niece (and the only interviewee I’m related to), but until we did this story I didn’t know the answers to all the questions I asked her. I have to add that Dawn and Abdellah are fantastic cooks, their kids are adorable, and her Arabic sounds good to me. Oh, and if you haven’t already, check out the High Atlas Foundation, you’ll be amazed at the beauty and the work being done.


Getting your bearings – Morocco is on the northwestern tip of Africa.


  1. I was a PCV in Chad from 1977-79, evacuated in March 1979) to Cameroon, where I got a local contract at the US embassy. I met a Frenchman, a former French volunteer in Liberia doing quality control on the rubber plantations. We were married 6 months later. We just celebrated PC’s 50th with friends in Montpellier, France. I’m going to Marrakech on March 15th for 6 days to attend a FAWCO conference. I’m trying to organize a former PCV reunion of FAWCO members during the conference, and we would also like to meet any current PCV’s in the Marrakech area. Any suggestions?


    • Hi,

      You have a great PC story! I will mention to Dawn, and see if she has any contacts there. I think there is a PCV at High Atlas Mountain NGO – the link is in her interview, you could contact them directly.

      Also, I would search for Peace Corps Morocco office, and contact them. In Macedonia, we often had folks who let our PC office know they wanted to meet Volunteers, and the office would send out an email.

      Have fun, good luck, and I will get back to you.



  2. Dawn embodies a philosophy that too few people seem to understand…, that America isn’t really a place or a country, it’s an ideal. America is an aspiration for freedom, equality, and prosperity that transcends borders, languages, and cultures. It’s a dream that has the power to accept and unite all mankind, and we in this country can learn as much from the rest of the world as they can from us. Her choices and life are an inspiration.

    “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson


  3. Loved the article, and photos of food, family and friends. I , too, am Dawn’s Aunt but truly appreciated seeing in writing why she so loved being a Peace Corps volunteer. Would love to hear more stories of efforts while over in a foreign country, who you live with, how you learn the language, and where you actually live.
    Thanks for sharing,
    Aunt Geri 🙂


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