Brussels: Interview with Moroccan youth

Brussels: Interview with Moroccan youth

Belgian newspaper De Standaard spoke with several youth who were born and raised in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek - about hate, police, their neighborhood and the riots which occurred there.


"Look." Karim (18) holds his cell-phone and shows a picture. "It's me," he says, since he's almost unrecognizable in the picture. His cheek is very swollen. The skin around and under his eye is blue. He looks very sore. "I lodged a complaint against the police-agents who did this," he says. "I heard that day that I passed in school. In order to let off steam, I arranged with several friends to meet at the Zwarte Vijvers metro-station. Around 10PM, not so late, a police car stopped there. The agents stepped out and shone a flashlight in our face. It was a shocking effect. They began to shout that we should remain calm. Before I knew it, I was lying on the ground. One of the agents began to kick me. I got several kicks in my face. We did nothing wrong. I was simply relived that my school scores were so good."

On a Friday evening youth from the neighborhood come to the Molenbeek West youth center to play table-football or talk. It is an outlet for them. Behind the activities that the youth center organizes there's a lot of psychology hidden. But the youth come simply to meet each other.

Two of them, Karim and Youssef, are willing to talk a bit about the neighborhood where they grew up. They are both 18 and have both lost their father. Karim when he was young, Youssef barely a year ago. Karim's mother cares alone for seven children. She lives off disability welfare. Youssef is the oldest of four children. His mother also doesn't work. "She is illiterate," says Youssef, "But she cares well for us."

The youth feel at home in Molenbeek. "We live here. We were born here, but when the police comes here we're the macaques [monkeys]". Youssef speaks quickly. He wants to make a point, and raises his voice to emphasize it. "While they're really there to protect us, we have to distrust them."

That some youth throw stones at the police department, Youssef can understand perfectly. "I haven't joined in the riots, at the end of September, but I could have been among them. I understand the hate that they harbor. Everywhere we go, we have to show our ID cards. Without any reason. The violence of those youth hasn't come from nothing. I've also gotten a fist from a police-agent in my face. I didn't lodge a complaint, but my respect towards the police has been lost. In order to get respect, you need to give respect."

The riots were painful for the people in Molenbeek, says Youssef. "There are many believing people living here. We are also believers. Ramadan is a holy period. The weekend of Eid ul-Fitr - that is a very holy day - the police were everywhere in the neighborhood. The tension was in the air. Totally disrespectful."

While his friend speaks, Karim nods in confirmation. He plays with his black cap. His hair is cut short at the sides and somewhat longer above. His small jeans are a little too short and his jeans-jacket is hanging over the chair. He's at the end of high-school and filled with the idea that getting a diploma is absolutely necessary. "I listen to the 'big brothers' in the neighborhood. They say that getting a diploma is important. but you don't learn everything in school. The important things in life you learn in the neighborhood, in the street."

Youssef agrees. "Many people think that Molenbeek is Baghdad or something," he says. "But have they ever really been here? Have they ever spoken to us? If they show respect, we will respect them. Ok, sometimes we sound somewhat more aggressive. Among each other we don't speak the French that you find in the dictionary. If we say 'it's a dirty jacket, we really mean that it's a terrific jacket."

Both youth feel Belgian first. "Everybody calls us immigrants, but we are at home here. They say that we should integrate. Integrate in our own country? Can you believe that? It's crazy," says Karim. "Some Belgians don't see it that way. For them we're Moroccans. But in Morocco we're foreigners. we don't belong anywhere."

"It's a handicap," says Youssef. "To have Moroccan roots. I don't find any vacation job, for example. At Actiris [Brussels public employment agency], they told me that there were no more places. Kevin, a boy from my class with the same education and experience, called two weeks later and he got a job. Almost nobody has a job during vacation. That is not because we don't want, no, there is no work for us. That discrimination makes me angry. They simply don't want us to develop."

Mohammed Ali is Youssef's great example. He is himself a kick-boxer. "From him I've learned to remain calm when it gets hot on the street. It's my way to drain my anger."

Youssef needs to go train. He leaves. When he's away, Karim says that he dreams of a family and children. "A fine place to live with my mother," he says. "I see me in ten years still living in Molenbeek for sure. I don't have the feeling that the neighborhood deprives me of my opportunities. There is nothing unsafe in the neighborhood." Karim considers a moment. "But is also important to go to other places. I know that. I go to Etterbeek after school. Therefore I get to know also people from outside Molenbeek."


"I go everywhere. Therefore they call me Paspartou. I live in Molenbeek. But that word got an ugly ring, so forget it." Paspartou (32) has been hanging around for several hours in the South-Brussels station when we meet him. "If I have nothing to do, I have nothing to do." He shrugs. He does want a cup of coffee.

Paspartou is a big brother in the neighborhood. "I try to advise the youth. But often they simply do what they want." Papartou creates music. "Every day I write songs. All those songs, it's things I've been through. I dream of being able to live off my music. I have a manager. I still looking for a producer. But there are just a few who can live off their music. If it doesn't succeed, I would to be a salesman. Of watches." He holds his cellphone. "You should hear this. It's a song that I made. Est-ce que tu me crois? [Do you believe me?] I wrote it because nobody ever believes us."

Paspartou was born in Morocco. His parents moved to Belgium when he was 18 months. His mother worked as a seamstress. Later his parents divorced and his father returned to Morocco. "I was the most difficult at home," he says. "Now I've become calmer, but then it was different. I often blew my fuse."

"I hung around for a while in France. Because I was on the run from the Brussels police. I committed burglary. In warehouses and commercial buildings. Never by people at home. I sat six months in jail in France. For small thefts and dodging fares on the train. When I got a call from Brussels that there was work for me, I came back. This way I could stay out of prison. I was later in Vorst [prison], but after a week they freed me."

"I love Brussels, but I didn't get here the opportunities that I deserved. I almost had a job as a municipal guard, I passed the tests, but then they called me to say that there was no place. That isn't true."

Paspartou doesn't have work and lives by his mother. But hope gives life, he says. "I have a friend who works for UGC now [movie complex], while he comes from the Anneessens neighborhood. That I live in Molenbeek, shouldn't therefore be in my way."

"The problem is that there's no more work. That is what politicians should keep busy with. In place of bickering about Wallonia and Flanders. I vote for PS [socialists]. My mother too. But it doesn't help at all. Politicians change nothing. When Baudouin was still king, everything was better. He spoke to his people and supported them in difficult times. That's we what we need now."


'Paspartou is a very fragile young man," says Karim Amezian (41). He's known the boy for some years. Together with a friend Amezian organizes a debate evening in the Maritiemwijk.

"The goal is to learn to live together." The concept that Karim devised is simple but brilliant: bring the people round the table, film them, have a microphone go around and let everybody in his turn say his thoughts. "For many youth it means a lot that they can speak in a microphone while they're filmed. They are often very fragile youth. Many never got a positive comment. And now the entire hall listens to them."

Karim grew up in the neighborhood. And he also struggled with everything in his youth. "I was almost in jail." He holds thumb and finger a few millimeters apart. "I was so close to it. Then it clicked. I now work with the same type of youth, but I know them through and through."

He does valuable work in the neighborhood, but Karim has difficulties. Karim's organization, Repère, doesn't get subsidies and he can't continue paying everything on his own. But the municipality is unyielding. "While we are the only ones who work with the most difficult youth".

Youth-worker Hadnan Abdelillah, Abdel, takes us to a match of mini-football in a sports hall in the area of Center West. He wants to show that there are many positive things happening in Molenbeek. When he sees a boy that he knows cross the street he puts down the window. "Are you coming on the 28th," he asks the boy, who nods. "Don't forget to sign up."

The two talk a while. Till Abdel realizes that they're standing in the middle of a junction. "Ai, I'm holding up traffic. There are people who are annoyed at that."

He shrugs smiling. Abdel was also born in Molenbeek. "There are also lots of good youth in Molenbeek. Look, maybe they sometimes study less. They won't all be lawyers, but we also need mechanics and plumbers. If we reach that, we can be proud."

"We do unbelievably many good projects with them. But you hear nothing about it in the media. The cameras are here only if the neighborhood burns. Lots of those youth are ignored everywhere. If they get a stone and smash a window, they get on TV. Therefore they do that."

Source: De Standaard (Dutch)

See also: Brussels: The Ghettos of Brussels

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