For Tampa Bay Moroccans, earthquake in their homeland brings fear, anxiety

The first Mohammed Mlih knew about the earthquake in his homeland was when his mother called 11 p.m. Friday.

Tremors forced her and Mlih’s younger brother to flee from their home in Meknes, some 150 miles east of Casablanca, in the middle of the night. Her first thought was to telephone her family members and let them know she’s okay.

Like Mlih, other Moroccans who call Tampa Bay home spent Saturday morning trying to get news about the disaster in their homeland that has already claimed more than 1,000 lives. The 6.8 magnitude quake was the strongest in the area in at least 123 years, according to a preliminary report from the United States Geological Survey.

Mlih said the call from his mother came when he was driving home. He stopped after the call to pray.

“I didn’t sleep the whole night,” Mlih said. “Everyone was in the street. When you have family over there thousands of miles away, the feeling is terrible.”

Mlih, who is a musician and also owns a sewing machine company, has lived in Tampa Bay for 25 years. His mother’s home town is about a 3-hour drive from the quake’s reported epicenter close to Oukaimeden.

He was reassured to know his mother, who is 79, and his 22-year-old brother are safe. But he is also worried about friends who live there and was following news reports from Moroccan media on the internet.

“They’re still bringing bodies from under the ground,” he said.

About 84,000 Moroccan immigrants and their children live in the United States, according to a 2015 report by the Migration Policy Institute, including as many as 10,000 in Florida. More than 1,000 Moroccans live in the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area, according to U.S. Census data.

New Tampa resident Sarah Sennoun was getting her nails done when a friend called and told her about the disaster.

Her husband’s family live in Agadir, a southern city that was destroyed by a 1960 earthquake. She and her husband’s first call was to make sure his parents were safe.

Her mother-in-law, who remembers the 1960 disaster, said this one was really strong.

“They were all terrified,” Sennoun said.

Sennoun’s mother was traveling home from the airport in Fes and witnessed people fleeing from their homes still in their pajamas, she said. Her aunt, who lives in Meknes, had to evacuate her 6th-floor home during the quake.

Sennoun, 34, and her husband moved to the United States from Morocco in 2015. She works as a Realtor.

She said earthquakes are rare in her homeland but when they do occur, it is often the homes and neighborhoods of the country’s poorest that suffer the most damage. She saw the same pattern emerging as she watched news reports and footage broadcast on CNN and Al Jazeera Friday night.

“We feel bad especially for the people who died,” she said. “At the same time, I’m glad nothing happened to my family.”