Local Family Builds Shelters for Moroccan Earthquake Victims

A church-sponsored trip to Morocco led to decades of relief work in a country they grew to love. Their work focused on building earthquake-proof housing for those in greatest need.


In 1981, Willie and Gretchen Easley went to Morocco with their two young daughters. That trip, sponsored by their church, would lead to a love of place and culture culminating in decades of relief work spanning two generations.

Sarah Easley Erickson, the eldest of those daughters, was 3 when her family moved to Fes for a year. Her brother Joey was born in Fes before the family moved to Oujda, a city near the Algerian border. Willie ran an English bookstore, selling mostly to college students. Erickson went to the local school where she became fluent in Arabic. “It was home for me,” she said. “I made lots of friends.”

The family returned intermittently to their home base on the Key Peninsula, where her grandfather had purchased 120 acres and built a house in 1964. “I felt home driving up Goldman Drive,” Erickson said.

“The air was so fresh and clean. ”The family of five moved back in 1991, in part because of the impact of the Gulf War. Three more children were born after their return.

The Easleys held annual fundraisers with friends and family to raise money for projects in Morocco and in the early 2000s they established a nonprofit, Friends of the Rif. Rif refers to the region and the people in the Atlas Mountains.

Erickson married her husband Brent in 2001. “I told him that whoever I marry has to go to Morocco,” she said, “because you won’t fully understand me until you’ve seen the country I grew up in.” They spent two years, between 2003 and 2006, at a children’s home in Ain Leuh, a town in north central Morocco, where she taught English and he set up an agricultural program.

In late 2003 Willie and Gretchen returned to Morocco to deliver medical supplies. Soon after they arrived an earthquake struck Al Hoceima, a city of 50,000 located on the Mediterranean. The couple rerouted the supplies to Al Hoceima and settled in to help rebuild, this time with their three youngest children aged 10, 12 and 16.

By 2007 the eldest of those three, Daniel, had returned home to attend community college and the other two siblings were ready to follow.

Joey Erickson and wife Dani went with their 3-month-old to take over the relief work. Their plan to stay for one year stretched to 10, and three of their five children were born while there. “Morocco has a way of taking hold of you,” Joey said.

Their work focused on building earthquake-proof housing for those in greatest need, particularly widows and orphans. The houses were small, about 500 square feet, and they taught others in the villages how to build their own.

“In 2017 we had finished our relief work,” Joey said. “We built about 160 homes and ran out of people who were in need. We loved it and looked for other relief opportunities, but nothing really suited us or our skill sets.”

They returned to the Key Peninsula and purchased his grandparents’ home.

The original 120 acres now have at least 20 homes on 2.5-acre parcels, most owned by family members. “People call it Easleyville,” Sarah said. She and Brent live there as do nearly all of her siblings along with aunts, uncles and cousins. “It is fun, really fun. A bad day for my kids is not being able to see their cousins,” she said.

Over the years many family members have gone to Morocco to work on projects, Sarah said. Some have gone for weeks and others have gone for months.

A large earthquake hit Morocco last September in the high Atlas mountains, a region about 450 miles from Al Hoceima. Daniel, who was transitioning in work, left almost immediately to help. He was there for three weeks, teaming with others to build latrines.

Upon his return family and board members of Friends of the Rif met to plan their next steps. Joey, who speaks Arabic more fluently than Daniel, took the lead. In November, when he was able to take time off from his roofing business, he went to the region to work on logistics.

“Our nonprofit didn’t have the funds to build the shelters,” Joe said. “But we were able to work with others like Samaritan’s Purse and Convoy of Hope. It was a perfect pairing. I knew the culture and could drop everything. They had the money but not the boots on the ground.”

He located a town in the foothills near the affected villages and worked with local leaders. The Quonset-style half-dome shelters were developed in Pakistan and Turkey in similar situations, and each can hold a family. They are insulated, inexpensive, can be built with locally sourced materials, and constructed on-site with easily available tools.

In the meantime, Daniel and his wife Elena made plans to work longer term to continue the relief work. They moved to Morocco with their five children, ages 1 through 9, in December. Sarah and her family traveled there for two weeks to help them settle in.

Daniel’s role is to acquire, transport and manage the building materials. Transportation is a major issue, Joey said, because the villages mostly depend on donkeys.

Daniel and his family plan to stay at least until shelter construction is complete or the funds run out. Friends of the Rif provides funding to support the family, estimated at just $2,000 a month.

The hope, Joey said, is to do more once the needed shelters are completed. They would like to replicate the work in Al Hoceima, building permanent earthquake-proof homes for the neediest families and teaching others how to build their own.

“There are definitely difficulties doing this work,” Joey said. “You miss family here. But it is not all sacrifice. The food is amazing. The people are extremely hospitable. It is a fun place to live.”

“One of the things we love about Morocco so much is that they are so family-oriented,” he said. “They love kids. I found personally that it was in many ways easier to raise kids in Morocco than here. It was normal for me to take even my young children to work. It made building relationships so easy.”

“We couldn’t do this work without all the support from everyone here,” Sarah said.

For more information go to Friends of the Rif is www.friendsoftherif.org.