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Her delightful little girls made headlines around the world when they met Harry and Meghan... now their NI doctor mother reveals full story of how she came to be living in Morocco

Doctor Clare McCaughey tells Leona O'Neill how her parents persuaded her to leave Northern Ireland, the challenges of providing health care in her new home, and why her young daughters are still buzzing about their royal encounter

Dr Clare McCaughey and husband Khlaid with their daughters Rania and Rayhana
Dr Clare McCaughey and husband Khlaid with their daughters Rania and Rayhana
Dr Clare McCaughey
The couple on their wedding day
The Duchess of Sussex with Rania and Rayhana in Morocco

Doctor Clare McCaughey's childhood spanned the Troubles, but ironically the Co Down native never experienced the devastation of a bomb until she made her new home in Morocco.

The 38-year-old mother-of-two, who relocated to Marrakesh with her newly-retired parents to start a new life in 2008, was one of the only doctors in the emergency room at the city's public hospital when casualties started to pour in after the horrific April 2011 bombing which saw 17 people, most of them tourists, lose their lives.

"I grew up in Bangor," she says.

"We were pretty sheltered against the Troubles there. You were always aware of it but I didn't really have any direct contact with the conflict or have any traumatic memories of it, any more so than any other child growing up in the 1980s in Northern Ireland.

"When I came to Marrakesh I was caught up in the al-Qaida bombing of 2011 when they bombed Jemaa el-Fnaa square. Seventeen people were killed and at least 20 people were injured.

"I was one of the only doctors in the emergency room when they were bringing in the casualties. I had left Belfast, came to Marrakesh and was involved in that. It was strange."

Clare says that despite the attack, she has and always will feel safe in the city that she has made home.

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"That was the only bomb that occurred here," she says. "And you think of the bombs in Manchester and the attacks in London. I feel that Marrakesh is an exceptionally safe city. I feel very comfortable here. I don't feel scared living here, certainly no more than in any other big city in the world.

"It is a beautiful place to live and I'm very glad that I get the chance to live here and raise my children.

"But it is very different. It is a Muslim country and that is very obvious, even just in the way that people dress. From the moment you step off the plane, you know you're in a Muslim country because people are covered up. At the same time Marrakesh is a very open city, everything goes. So in one group of friends you might have a girl wearing a tank top and another girl veiled from head to toe. It is a very accepting city and you can be whoever you want to be. You have the freedom to do that. But it is a Muslim city and country."

Clare says she always knew that her future did not lie in Northern Ireland and when her parents went on the hunt for a retirement home in Morocco, she knew that she wanted to be part of their new life on the other side of the world.

"I trained in emergency medicine in Belfast," she says.

"I went to Queen's University and then worked at Antrim Area Hospital. I did medicine because I wanted to do something different. Travel was always part of my plan, so I never really intended to stay in Northern Ireland.

"I never really felt like I fitted in, I wanted something different. So I left and did a Masters in tropical medicine in Liverpool.

"When we were kids we had friends who lived in Morocco. Just after I graduated my parents Roberta and Russell - who are both 63 - decided to look for an investment opportunity for their retirement. They went to Morocco to look for a house and they found one.

"They came back and told me that they had found this house, but that they couldn't really afford it on their own and asked if I wanted to join in and buy it together. That was in 2005 and there was a real boom in property prices in Belfast. All my friends were trying to buy up houses in the city quickly.

"We had just graduated and had salaries and everyone was buying. I just decided I didn't want a house in Belfast so I agreed and bought the house in Morocco with my parents."

It was a move that was to prove life-defining for Clare.

"I went to Marrakesh in 2008," she says. "I took a year out of medicine and decided I wanted to learn Arabic to do something different with my brain. And that is where I met my husband Khlaid, who runs a language and culture centre. We got married in 2010, firstly in Belfast, and then we all flew to Marrakesh and three days later we had an all-out Moroccan wedding on New Year's Day. We went on to have our two little girls, Rania and Rayhana.

"Mum and dad moved out to Morocco in 2011. Dad was a civil servant back home, mum was a primary school teacher. They retired early and moved out here. Dad was a rugby referee and then moved to golf when he was too old to play rugby. If you are a golf enthusiast there is no better place to live than Marrakesh. The weather is a little different over here and dad doesn't get texts every Friday night to say that the course is closed because it's flooded."

Clare is now a director of a small private hospital in Marrakesh. It's a long way from Antrim Area Hospital A&E department and she says she deals with a vast array of very different issues.

"In our emergency room we deal mostly with road traffic accidents," she says. "We live in this big city and we have crazy traffic. There are very little issues in terms of drugs, there is very little in terms of gang activity. There is no alcohol and hard drugs are too expensive for people who have no money. There is no organised gang or drug-related stuff. There is petty crime.

"There are no guns because Morocco is a police state. There is a very visible police presence."

She says she is the only English-trained doctor in Marrakesh, and possibly the country. And from a career perspective, it was a tough road to where she is today.

"I work in a private clinic now," she says. "You either have a public hospital, which is really quite terrible, or public health clinic. At the end of the day we are a developing nation and public health care is chronically under-resourced for a huge number of patients that need to use it. And there is a huge level of poverty, so that brings a lot of challenges with it.

"I worked for five years in the public hospital. It actually took me eight years to be fully recognised in the qualifications here so I had to work for five years for free, basically, as a volunteer doctor, while I was getting my papers processed.

"I am now the director of in-patient care in a 120-bed hospital, so it is a small hospital. We have got an emergency room, theatres and all the different services. I am the only foreigner. You can't work as a doctor here in Morocco unless you are Moroccan or married to a Moroccan. I'm the only English-trained doctor certainly in Marrakesh, quite possibly in the whole country."

Clare also runs a health education charity called Dar El Hanane, meaning House of Compassion, which aims to help everyone access affordable health care.

"When I first came over here I was working for a charity while I was volunteering at the hospital," she says.

"What we originally did was import containers of medical equipment from the west coast of the USA and give those to the public hospital and services here, which were grossly under-resourced.

"I wanted to do something that was my own project in Marrakesh, which was a bit more than putting a plaster on a gaping wound and had a bit more longevity about it. So I started to dream up something, Dar El Hanane, which means House of Compassion. Our real hope for the future is that it might be an actual drop-in clinic, like an urgent care type place, where people who can't afford good health care come and access good health care for affordable prices. But bureaucracy here is absolutely crazy and foreigners trying to do things in healthcare is very difficult. There is suspicion and a whole lot of politics at play.

"So I've never been able to open it as a clinic yet. We have done health education lessons with women mostly, the theory being that if you can get a woman to understand prevention and home management then they teach the children and influence the husband and so you can actually change the whole society's behaviour through the woman."

Of course, many of Clare's friends in Northern Ireland were thrilled to catch a glimpse of her two little girls, in their matching red dresses, meeting the Duke and Duchess of Sussex during their visit to Morocco last weekend.

And almost a week on from their big day out, Clare's daughters are still "buzzing" after meeting Prince Harry and Meghan.

Clare and her girls positioned themselves in the small isolated mountain village of Asni holding Union and Moroccan flags to catch a glimpse of the couple and were pleasantly surprised when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex came to speak to them.

"Rania is still buzzing about meeting 'her friend the princess' and only took her red dress off briefly to wash it and is wearing it again," says Clare.

"The girls were on the front page of local newspapers here in Morocco on Monday morning and their teachers have cut out and framed the photos.

"There also has been a lot of local chat on social media sites about 'who are the two girls in red' because none of the local Press actually talked to us. There are quite a few funny stories ranging from 'orphans from the home that they dressed up' to 'actresses chosen to be little models because they are too good to be real children' to 'children of some minister pretending to be local children'.

"One man even fought with me that they were hand-picked from some government minister's children to be there even after I told them they were my girls.

"No one quite believes us that it wasn't actually planned at all, but it was a fabulous experience."

Though she now lives thousands of miles away, Clare says that she carries Northern Ireland in her heart always and is teaching her young daughters of their strong Irish roots.

"Bangor will always be home," she stresses. "You know when you get off the plane at Aldergrove, you come down the motorway and you see Belfast Lough with Bangor beyond, I will always have that feeling that 'this is home'.

"I'm really careful with my girls that they understand that they are half Moroccan, but also half Northern Irish. They say that themselves.

"We try to get back at least once a year to Northern Ireland. One of my very best friends packs and posts me a box every two months full of cinnamon lozenges, butter balls and brandy balls and Tayto cheese and onion crisps.

"And every time someone comes to visit, my mum asks them to bring a bag of soda bread flour to make that. We have to get her working on potato bread."

She adds: "I have a little bit of Northern Ireland in my home. We have just built ourselves a house, which will be our forever home. Years ago when I first moved over here, someone gave me a lovely little plaque for my front door that said 'cead mile failte'. I must have put it into a box along with my granny's good china tea-set and forgot about it. But when we were packing for the new house last week I came across it. It'll have pride of place on my own new front door. So that will be nice."

Belfast Telegraph


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