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WeLoveBXL opens eyes of youth in Molenbeek

20:21 31/12/2018

This autumn, three locals hit the streets of Molenbeek and peppered youth with questions. “What are your needs? What do you think is lacking in this neighbourhood?”

The answer that many of the 50 young people in the Brussels municipality offered – “prospects”, or educational and professional pathways to a better life – speaks to the existential dreariness that has long haunted the district that made global headlines in the wake of the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks.

Starting next month, Molenbeek youth will be able to find plenty of new prospects at WeLoveBXL. The organisation will offer a variety of activities and workshops, with the aim of helping young people soar in an area where poverty and unemployment are like a sticky floor.

The three people who interviewed the youths are now full-time co-ordinators and coaches at WeLoveBXL. “When I ask them what they want to become, they give me the typical, utopian answers: They want to be musicians or professional athletes. That’s a tell-tale sign for me that they are little bit lost,” says Sihame El Kaouakibi, the founder of WeLoveBXL.

Broadening horizons

Molenbeek’s young people, she says, only see themselves reflected in the media in people like Stromae, a mixed-race, home-grown Brussels singer who has sold over 8.5 million records worldwide.

“We want them to get a much wider perspective on all the possibilities that are out there and then help them adjust their career ambitions to their competencies and the evolving job market,” she explains. “It’s not enough to introduce a youth who wants to become a police officer to someone in your network who is a policeman. They first need to know all the other options open to them.”

At WeLoveBXL, young people will be able to sample everything from photography and hip-hop to slam poetry and “calligraffiti”. But WeLoveBXL will also offer workshops aimed at personal and professional growth on such topics as entrepreneurship, app development and leadership.

Still, there are many organisations in Molenbeek – like ToekomstAtelier, D’Broej, Circus Zonder Handen and Art2Work – that have worked to close the socio-economic disparities and achievement gaps between local youth, many of whom have migrant roots, and their white, middle-class peers in wealthier neighbourhoods. Not to mention the many volunteer-run homework assistance and mentoring projects that have mushroomed in both Brussels and Antwerp in recent years.

But El Kaouakibi stresses that WeLoveBXL is doing something different. “Our methodology is really to appeal to youth with urban-themed activities and to surround them with coaches after we’ve drawn them in.”

These coaches will meet on a regular basis with the youngsters and work with them on whatever issue they are struggling with – whether it’s low self-esteem, bad grades, feelings of isolation or a difficult family situation. El Kaouakibi adds that they also want to work together with existing organisations rather than operate like an island.

Let's go urban

El Kaouakibi has done something similar with her Let’s Go Urban, which she launched in Antwerp almost 10 years ago and which today reaches 5,000 youngsters a week. In September, it opened the Urban Center, a dedicated space for the organisation, which had been working at locations scattered throughout the port city.

According to figures supplied by Let’s Go Urban, the organisation has a positive impact on 80% percent of the youth who have participated in its programmes. The describe “positive impact” as “youngsters who have developed positively and who are happy”.    

WeLoveBXL, meanwhile, will be housed in the massive Brussels Event Brewery building and is largely funded by major corporations like the Deloitte consultancy, Bpost and Coca-Cola. It has also received a €100,000 subsidy from the federal interior ministry.

Photo: Sihame El Kaouakibi (third from left) is the founder of Let’s Go Urban and WeLoveBXL ©Courtesy Sihame El Kaouakibi

Written by Linda A Thompson (Flanders Today)