Leandro Travieso’s life will change on Sept. 12.
That’s when the 25-year-old Hialeah Cuban American will start a 4,200-mile trip to exotic Morocco, where he will join 160 other Peace Corps volunteers assigned to the North African country.
Travieso will live there more than two years, first undergoing specialized training and then teaching young Moroccans English and the importance of being active citizens of their country. He will also participate in community projects to improve living conditions in his assigned area.
“Now I have the opportunity to travel abroad as an American and make a difference in another country,” said Travieso, adding that he was motivated by the courage of parents who left Cuba for the United States without knowing the language or culture.
During his first three months as a volunteer, Travieso will live with a Moroccan family that will help him adapt to the culture and learn the language, Maghrebi Arabic, also known as Dariya.
Travieso has started studying Arabic on his own, tackling the alphabet and some common phrases.
But he’s also been preparing for the adventure in other ways, trying to pack for any future needs. His priority list includes not only indispensable items but anything that would make him feel “close to home” even if he’s thousands of miles away.
Among the items he’s been gathering is the kind of music he would find on Miami radio stations, a couple of books and, of course, a stash of Goya Sazón to give his meals a taste of home.
Travieso said the seasoning made him feel better when he spent 2016 in Washington, D.C., as a volunteer for AmeriCorps, a government program for volunteers who help U.S. communities with education, healthcare, security and other areas.
He joined the Peace Corps at the end of that year. “I liked the idea of service, of helping people who don’t have the same resources that we may have,” he said.
Travieso said he’s also eager to travel abroad for the first time since he came to the United States on Jan. 14, 2004. He visited Cuba in 2011 with this father, he said, “but going back to the country where you were born cannot count as a new experience.”
That search for something new and different was part of what motivated him to choose Morocco. “Doing it in Latin America would be like doing it in Miami. I want a challenge,” Travieso said, adding that he always wanted to visit a Muslim country.
Travieso came to the United States with his parents and a younger sister after they received visas under the Special Program for Cuban Migration, popularly known as the lottery.
He graduated from Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High, became a U.S. citizen in 2014 and a year later graduated from Florida International University with a degree in international and Asian studies.
Travieso said he may return to university for a master’s or doctorate after his stint in the Peace Corps. But for now he’s focused on the next two years.
His message to the Moroccans he will meet, he said, is that the United States “is not the country in the movies. It’s several cultures that live together.”
More than 8,000 Floridians have served in the Peace Corps since 1961, and 313 are currently volunteering around the world.
Follow Johanna A. Álvarez on Twitter: @jalvarez8.