Brussels, Belgium – Forty-year-old Ibrahim Ouassari walks along a hallway, a shy-looking teenager with his hair gelled into spikes beside him.
He places a fatherly hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Welcome,” he says, and the youngster’s apprehension gives way to a cautious smile. “This place is now open for you.”
The place is MolenGeek, an IT-focused community initiative tucked away amid the cobblestone streets and squat, run-down housing projects of Molenbeek, an impoverished neighbourhood of central Brussels. Founded four years ago, it provides a creative outlet for the area’s young people, many of whom are of North African descent.
“Most of the residents cannot find a job due to their profile – being Muslims, migrants, plus the fact that they live in the suburb of Molenbeek even, combined with the poor educational level,” Ouassari explains.
Home to 92,000 people, Molenbeek has a 40 percent youth unemployment rate and is, according to the Brussels Institute of Statistics and Analysis (BISA), the third poorest municipality in the capital, with a median annual household income of 17,303 euros ($19,558) in 2016.
The school drop-out rate for second-generation residents of Molenbeek is 21 percent for boys and 15 percent for girls.
It is an experience Ouassari is familiar with. He was just 13 when he dropped out of school.
“I couldn’t find a job because of this either, also having no academic background, and after all, my name is Ibrahim and I live in Molenbeek,” he says matter-of-factly.
But in an eight-person home that prided itself on education – with a brother who became a judge and a sister who became a teacher – leaving school did not mean the end of his education. Ouassari taught himself to design and build websites and went on to own four companies.
He believes entrepreneurship offers a way to overcome the disadvantages of growing up in a place like Molenbeek. But he recognises the towering barriers that can face many of the neighbourhood’s youngsters and their need for some kind of boost to help them succeed.
That is where the idea for MolenGeek came from.
“There is no fatalism in tech,” he says. “We created this space so that young people would have no excuse to be inactive.”
Its roots were planted in May 2015 with a three-day hackathon supported by the municipality and local businesses. There were 25 participants, all from Molenbeek.
But just six months later, the media spotlight was turned on Molenbeek when a resident, Salah Abdeslam, was accused of being involved in the November 2015 attacks in Paris. Negative stereotypes and depictions of the area as a “breeding ground” for violence were recycled, repeated and amplified, drawing the attention of Islamophobic politicians who sought to play on the area’s reputation.
But Ouassari and MolenGeek persisted and, today, it enjoys the backing of multinational tech companies like Samsung and Google and offers a coworking space, coding courses and a startup business incubator.
With 20 employees and upwards of 1,200 community members, MolenGeek provides free daily lessons in computer programming, web developing and social media training, among other things.
“If someone says they have no money to enrol at a tech incubator, here everything is free. If someone says they have no skills, here we run a coding school,” Ouassari explains, gesturing towards the space where roughly 100 – mostly young – men and women work away behind sticker-blanketed laptops beneath graffiti of an Anonymous mask that spans much of the wall.
“When you are a migrant, it’s easier for you to stay with your own people, visit the mosque, eat the same halal [food],” Ouassari reflects.
But Ouassari wanted MolenGeek to be somewhere people from different backgrounds could work and learn side-by-side.
“This initiative seeds the idea of diversity … Here you will find people from Molenbeek but also Morocco, Mexico, Sweden, America,” he says. “It is really important to have a diverse spectrum of backgrounds in order to mix ideas and communities.”
“I grew up here. In my mind I am Belgian, I think in French, but at home I eat with my fingers. Having the Moroccan and Belgian culture, this double culture, helped me a lot as I was growing up here. I think the future of Belgium has an obligation to be mixed and diverse.”
‘Racist talk is now accepted’
A five-minute walk from MolenGeek, past corner stores with signs in Arabic, is the Doctors for the People (MPLP) medical house, an initiative by the left-wing Workers’ Party of Belgium intended to provide medical care for impoverished residents of Molenbeek.
In the waiting room are elderly men and young mothers with their children. “A medical house in every neighbourhood,” a poster on the wall proclaims in French and Dutch.
Hind Addi, a 28-year-old general practitioner, leaves her examination room, a stethoscope around her neck and a smile on her face. She makes her way to a cafe upstairs, where she takes a seat and reels off a litany of problems facing residents of Molenbeek. They cover everything from barriers to healthcare and education to economic challenges.
“The inequality is great,” the Molenbeek resident of Moroccan ancestry concludes.
She estimates that “the people of Molenbeek live 20 years less in good health than the residents of Uccle [the city’s wealthiest municipality].”
She explains that many of her patients recount difficulties in finding jobs, particularly women who wear the hijab, a headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion. If two women apply for the same job, Addi reflects, and one is named Samira and the other Cecile, the latter’s chances are much higher.
Addi explains that MPLP seeks to empower hard-off Molenbeek residents by helping them with healthcare, bills and other expenses. The programme provides treatment for about 50 people a day, she says.
But Addi believes an ongoing process of gentrification – with an influx of tourists seeking affordable Airbnb lodgings, artists moving in and investors buying up housing blocks – in the neighbourhood has sharpened socioeconomic divisions and pushed many people out of the area.
“… Back in the day in these areas, there was the cheapest rent and the houses nobody wanted,” she explains.
But it is not just gentrification that troubles residents. They also “feel the pressure of Islamophobia or ‘Molenbeekphobia’, which rose especially after the Paris and Brussels attacks,” Addi adds.
According to the Belgian Association for the Prevention of Islamophobia (CCIB), a non-profit organisation, Muslims in Belgium face high levels of Islamophobia, including attacks on their places of worship, targeting on social media and physical violence.
“There is an Islamophobic attack in Belgium every two days,” with 29 percent of the attacks taking place online, notes a report published by the CCIB in September 2018.
For Addi, the uptick in anti-Muslim sentiment – tied to the swell of negative media coverage and the rise of the far-right across Europe – has its roots in the government. When he was the country’s minister of immigration, Theo Francken, one of Belgium’s leading anti-migrant voices and a member of the right-wing New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), threatened to “lock up” refugees and asylum seekers and “send them back to their home country”.
He had previously been forced to apologise for using the hashtag #opkuisen – Dutch for “cleaning up” – in a Facebook post referring to the arrests of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
Pointing to Francken’s rhetoric, Addi says “racist talk is now free through social media [and] it is accepted …. It fits with their ideas.”
“The more economic crisis is coming, the more the [discourse] goes to the immigrants being the enemy, so they will not see the real enemy,” she says.
Across the canal
A narrow strip of still, dark water divides Molenbeek from the fashionable district of Dansaert. On the grey canal walls hang banners depicting Molenbeek residents wearing 3D glasses.
They are part of an artistic project dubbed The Big Molenbeek Show by Molenbeek native Antoine Caramalli, who has sought to mock the negative media depictions of the neighbourhood.
On the Molenbeek side of the canal, rows of elegant Flemish-style apartment blocks, bistros and shops line commercial avenues demarcated by street signs written in French and Dutch. Children peddle bicycles beneath ageing buildings shedding their earth-toned paint.
On the nearby Place Communale Molenbeek, gold-threaded abayas and ornately-embroidered gowns adorn the windows of narrow shops that sit beside halal butchers and cafes.
In a cramped corner of Chaussee de Gand stands Zaj Cafe, where the aroma of mint tea mingles with that of freshly cooked Harira, a traditional Moroccan soup, and cigarette smoke. Roughly 15 men sit at the tables inside, some watching the news on a broad, flat-screen television, others laughing and chatting in Arabic and French.
The fluorescent lights flicker as a tall, well-built man rises from his seat and heads to a spot sandwiched between two refrigerators. He lays down his prayer mat and kneels for the post-sunset Maghrib prayer.
In March 2016, five months after the attacks in Paris, Belgian police carried out a series of raids in Molenbeek and another suburb, Forest, situated an hour’s drive across town. Abdeslam and four other suspects were arrested. Another suspect was killed.
Ouassari recalls how, in the days and weeks that followed, reporters flooded Molenbeek. “We got to see a lot of attention,” he says, “and I feel that the population was really at their limits after two to three weeks of constant media coverage.”
In March 2018, a Brussels court sentenced Abdeslam, who had been born in Brussels to Moroccan parents and had French citizenship, and an accomplice to 20 years in prison.
“It’s complicated to find one explanation to this,” reflects Ouassari, who had lived in the same street as Abdeslam.
But the far-right was not concerned with the complexities of the case as they turned their attention to the neighbourhood.
Geert Wilders, the anti-Muslim politician and head of the Dutch far-right Party for Freedom, and members of the far-right Flemish Vlaams Belang, planned to host what they called a “Islam safari” in Molenbeek.
They were later forced to cancel it after local officials banned them from entering the municipality.
For his part, Ouassari says marginalisation and blanket-blaming Molenbeek residents only serve to worsen the situation. “When someone does not feel Belgian, does not feel as part of this society, they move from feeling to feeling and this pushes them to feel excluded,” he reflects.
‘Molenbeek is like a family to me’
At the MolenGeek workspace, 21-year-old web developer Ismail Mahaj focuses on his laptop as he experiments with coding on a new office access card system.
Mahaj says that when he was 17, after two years of “trying to figure out … what I should do with my life,” he decided to stop by the MolenGeek office to see the place for himself.
That was when he met Ouassari.
Mahaj, a Molenbeek resident of Moroccan descent who dropped out of school at 15, instantly connected with him.
“The teachers at school were insisting that I will not succeed in anything in my life, so I used this as a motivation to prove to myself and the rest of these people that I will succeed,” he says.
Mahaj became part of the 93rd percentile of students who have successfully completed MolenGeek’s coding school course.
“If it wasn’t for MolenGeek, I would probably have followed the first job opportunity given,” he says. “I have a goal now and furthermore I am really happy doing what I like.”
As Mahaj steps out to run errands, he crosses through a market and waves at friends and neighbours. “Molenbeek is like a family to me,” he says. “We know each other and there is solidarity and mutual aid as we all live and stay here as a community.”
“But we also have new ‘Molenbequois’, people from Romania or Poland,” he adds. “We try to integrate them in our society, and we succeed in that.”
As the clock ticks five in the afternoon, Ismail heads back to MolenGeek to grab his jacket. He exchanges greetings with classmates in the corridor and then sets off for the parking garage. His daily schedule includes jumping back and forth between MolenGeek, computer classes and public speaking seminars that he attends.
“In order to live properly, I need to sacrifice something from my youth,” he says as he prepares to head to a computer science class in the Midi region, some 40 minutes away. “Now that I am still young and willing, Inshallah, these sacrifices will lead me somewhere.”
Ouassari feels proud of the spirit he sees inside the space he created.
“I see a lot of talent among these young men and women, and no one cares about them,” he reflects, moving his finger in a circle as if to point to the youngsters.
“When you just give them the tools, they grab them and immediately start something. When someone coming from here succeeds, I want them to come and give something back. I want to create a cooperative where we share experience, opportunity and money.”
Across Europe, the far-right is on the rise and it has some of the continent’s most diverse communities in its crosshairs.
To the far right, these neighbourhoods are ‘no-go zones’ that challenge their notion of what it means to be European.
To those who live in them, they are Europe. Watch This is Europe.