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WeLoveBXL founder investigated for misuse of subsidies

17:35 06/04/2021
Sihame El Kaouakibi is already involved in court hearings, accused of siphoning subsidies from her original organisation, Let’s Go Urban, to privately owned businesses

The Sihame El Kaouakibi affair, a major story in Flanders over the last few weeks, has crossed over into Brussels as the interior minister has asked for an investigation into the financial affairs of the We Love BXL non-profit.

El Kaouakibi is the founder and director of Let’s Go Urban, an incredibly popular and influential organisation in Antwerp. Launched in 2009 as a mostly hip-hop dance workshop, it has grown into the Let’s Go Urban Academy, with programmes and activities for young people starting from the age of six.

Let’s Go Urban has enjoyed an outstanding reputation, being credited with changing the lives of at-risk youth in the port city. In 2018, El Kaouakibi founded WeLoveBXL to have the same impact on Brussels youth. The organisation based in Molenbeek offers all kinds of ways to get young people – particularly youth with a migrant background – involved in something, from sport to music to technology labs.

Both organisations moved beyond activities to tutoring, mentoring and bridging the gap between youth from lower socio-economic households and entrepreneurship and the jobs market. Its founder became a Belgian celebrity for her ability to reach young people in a completely new, authentic way.

Into politics

Flemish political party Open VLD recruited El Kaouakibi in 2019, and she won a seat in the Flemish parliament. It appeared to be the latest in an upward trajectory for the 34-year-old – until news broke earlier this year of financial irregularities at Let’s Go Urban.

El Kaouakibi is now in the middle of legal proceedings, accused of siphoning some €450,000 in subsidies to her own private partnerships. She is also suspected of invoicing the non-profit for private purchases and renovations to her home.

As the administrator in the investigation continues to release information to the press – sloppy accounting, missing documents and forged invoices – El Kaouakibi continues to maintain her innocence.

Now VTM news has revealed that €3,630 was invoiced to WeLoveBXL for work on built-in cabinets in El Kaouakibi’s house. The broadcaster was given access to emails that directed the invoicing. Further, VRT news discovered that an extensive tableware service was ordered for WeLoveBXL, but the delivery address was El Kaouakibi’s home.

The entrance to WeLoveBXL in MolenbeekWeLoveBXL is on Rue Delaunoy in Molenbeek

WeLoveBXL and Let’s Go Urban have received millions in subsidies at local, regional and federal level. WeLoveBXL received €200,000 from the federal government in start-up funding. Interior minister Annelies Verlinden (CD&V) has now asked that an investigation be opened into the latest revelations about the invoicing.

WeLoveBXL also received €80,000 from the Flemish government as part of its Brussels Fund. The Flemish government is awaiting the results of the hearings regarding Let’s Go Urban before considering any investigation.

An administration that did not get involved in WeLoveBXL was Molenbeek. “It was identified as a youth project in the context of the Canal Plan,” Françoise Schepmans (MR) – the mayor of Molenbeek at the time – told Bruzz. “Molenbeek was asked to act as conservator. But if we receive money, we want to be involved in a project. We could not reach an agreement with the federal government about this, so we decided that the project would be realised without our involvement.”

In the meantime, Open VLD has started the procedure to remove El Kaouakibi from the party. Should that happen, she would still legally be allowed to keep her seat in the Flemish parliament as an independent.

Photo, top: ©Nicolas Maeterlinck/BELGA

Written by Lisa Bradshaw