With just a quick Google search of ‘Molenbeek’, you are painted quite a bleak picture of one of nineteen municipalities that make up the Brussels-Capital Region of Belgium. If you have never heard of Molenbeek before, headlines such as ‘Europe’s Jihadi Capital’ heavily marred with reports of anti-terror raids and with Politico declaring it ‘Brussels terrorist safe haven’, you will probably rethink your weekend trip to the area.
Belgium’s fragmented society – divided into the Flemish and Walloon regions – has been argued by experts as the reason immigrant communiti es slip between the cracks of both social services and security agencies. ABC News reporting in 2016 that the lack of communication and fierce rivalries between the partitioned regions is a ‘particularly vulnerable trait for intelligence agencies to identify potential terrorist threats’.
However, to call Molenbeek a breeding ground of violence would be a mistake. Twenty-four out of the reported five hundred Belgians believed to have left the country to fight for ISIS have links to Molenbeek, representing only a small fraction of the 100,000 residents of the municipality.
For the youth of Molenbeek, living in a stigmatised city comes with many challenges. Just to have Molenbeek on your address can be a deterrent for potential employers outside of the city. As of 2016, the youth unemployment for Brussels was its lowest in 25 years, sitting at just under 25 per cent. Yet in Molenbeek, some studies have suggested it as high as 5
0 per cent.
To tackle this divide, Brussels youth network organisation JES focuses on building relationships with kids and young adults in Molenbee
k, as in the other municipalities of the Brussels Capital Region. JES works on social inclusiveness to tackle unemployment and the risk of kids falling into crime due to lack of opportunities provide to them. JES has built up a strong network of social workers and volunteers in te area, who reach out to the subjugated youth in the district and provide many vocational programs, as well as group activities to promote inclusiveness.
To help the youth feel more included, the JES team run a multimedia workshop each Wednesday, where they teach digital storytelling and making phone apps. Two years ago JES created the photography app LOMAP, as a new tool to reach out to anyone working with youth. The app is designed so anyone could take an image of an area of their neighbourhood. By adding colours and opinions, they are able to give views on what they like about the neighbourhood and what they perceived to be obstacles or problems. Meanwhile 20,000 photo’s have been taken already.
All the pictures come together on a map and can be viewed on the website of JES. Yota!, the participation department of JES, uses the pictures to improve the area. Lennart Mottar, a youth worker active at the Brussels Experimental Active Media training-programme (BEAM) of JES, shows the map on one of the computers in the JES-media lab. “We take the input of our young inhabitants in account to improve the public spaces”, he said.
He opens a new webpage to show one of the self-made digital postcards, a photo with a voiceover that can be send by mail directly from the website. On the screen a picture of a boy is shown, seen from the back. He hoists himself up on a piece of improvised gym equipment, taped to a fence. “This is Yacine from Molenbeek”, Lennart Mottar said. “In this multi-media, online postcard Yacine says that he made this pull-up bar himself.” Mottar presses the play button and Yacine starts saying: ‘I would like to have more structures for sports in the neighbourhood, because we made this ourselves. It is dangerous. Once a kid cut open his head.’
The short video only runs for 30 seconds. “It was in the top-10 of most watched items on our website. That means a lot for a boy like Yacine. Things like this gives youth the opportunity to give their opinion about the neighbourhood they’re living in.”
Mottar is aware of the fact that it is impossible to reach all the youth. “Especially in places like Molenbeek. After the terrorist attacks of November 2015 in Paris the neighbourhood was packed with journalist for at least six months. That has had a clear effect on the youth. They felt on display to the reporters and ever since is has become harder to reach them. Our youth workers feel their stress and have to work harder to comfort them.”
However, it is important to keep reaching out to all the youth living in the Brussels-Capital Region. “Sometimes the kids may have the feeling that their opinion doesn’t matter. But the postcard from Yacine reached a lot of people and was repeatedly shared on social media. That is particularly significant for a boy like Yacine. He doesn’t have his proper gym equipment yet, but at least the youth get a voice via our channels.”