Molenbeek is an area of Brussels which is discussed a lot. In more recent news, Molenbeek has been called a hell hole by former American president Donald Trump. Why, you might ask? After the 2015 attacks in Paris and the 2016 attacks in Brussels, Molenbeek turned out to be a breeding ground for extremists, ISIS terrorists. This bad reputation still lingers around Molenbeek, but a community so densely packed with different cultures who care about each other, has a different side to it.
On a fresh Wednesday morning, the sun glares through the streets of Molenbeek. In the far distance, voices bounce off the houses and a smell of fresh produce coming from the nearby market finds its way through the roads. As graffiti covered walls brighten up the empty streets, a big colourful building stands out. A plant-filled alleyway leads to big windows, behind which veiled females talk and laugh.
The big building is the headquarters of Maison des Femmes, an institution for the emancipation of women in Molenbeek. Noura Amer, coordinator of the organisation, sits in a brightly decorated room while she explains the importance of the house: “We help women emancipate themselves, but for each woman, emancipation means something different. Some just want to learn how to read and write, to prepare for the job market. For others, we help them for example to divorce their husband. This is a deeper level of emancipation because we intervene in their personal lives and often in the structural values of their cultures,” Noura explains, “We take care of the wellbeing of women, in the public atmosphere, but also in the private atmosphere we stand in for their safety.”
The importance of the house in Molenbeek is clear. Poverty has been a raging issue for quite some time. According to official numbers of STATBEL, in 2019 the unemployment rate in Molenbeek for people between 15 and 64 years old is close to 47%, with a yearly income of 20.000 euros. The annual income of the Belgian inhabitant levels at 45.000 euros. With resources staying low, initiatives like Maison des Femmes make a difference. “Molenbeek is filled with beautiful people, but it’s true that living here is not easy,” Noura states, “People are capable of doing things, but without the means and without the motivation they don’t take action. That’s why non-profit organisations like ours are so important, to help people find the motivation to do something more with their life.” Noura concludes her explanation: “Molenbeek is not filled with troubled people, but with people who suffer from the same troubles.”
A few kilometres south of Maison des Femmes, Ghislaine awaits at West station. With a smile, she walks through a courtyard filled with noisy children, to a painted hangar and settles down at a big wooden table. Ever-smiling Ghislaine is coordinator of non-profit organisation Samen Voor Morgen. “We are a little non-profit organisation, that started out of a citizens’ initiative,” she tells. Different from other initiatives, Samen Voor Morgen works bottom up instead of top down. They ask the neighbourhood what they actually need, Ghislaine explains: “We plan on the basis of people’s needs, for example after school care, homework counselling or even organising an event where people from the neighbourhood can meet. If we start a project without consulting the area and it’s not necessary, the money is gone and wasted.” Samen Voor Morgen aims at sustainable targets.
Ghislaine lived herself for a long time in Molenbeek, but she had to move due to family expansion. “For a lot of people, Molenbeek is a wonderful place to live. But often, big families are squashed together in a tight space.” Big families in Molenbeek are not unusual, but many houses are not big enough to harbour the families. Due to the lack of space, children don’t have enough places to play or express themselves. “This is a big challenge for us, giving children an outlet. Outdoor spaces here are scarce, so we try to make space available for them, but it takes time,” Ghislaine states, “In addition, many parents put a lot of focus on their children’s grades instead of after school activities like music lessons. We approach them and try to explain that hobbies are a big part of a childhood.”
In the background, children’s screams and loud tools fill up a void. The courtyard is filled with activities, fit for children of any age, from a vegetable garden to a skate ramp. “We love this place. It used to be barren grounds, but with a little work we turned it into this.” Ghislaine’s mood shifts a little: “Unfortunately we only have these grounds until 2026, after that it’s going to be a building project. Gentrification at its best.”
As the sun sets, more children arrive at Samen Voor Morgen. The tight community in Molenbeek is noticeable. Although many problems still plague the neighbourhood in ways non-profit organisations can’t solve them, the organisations still bring a sense of wellbeing that will help current and future generations. In conclusion, a hell hole is not the right description of Molenbeek. Diverse, multicultural, united and in some ways troubled is a better description.