Looking Beyond the Headlines in Molenbeek

Like many others, I never heard of Molenbeek prior to November 2015. I learned about this Brussels community in a whirlwind of media coverage about the Paris attacks. Everything I read, heard or watched about Molenbeek was focused on how Molenbeek had become the "jihadi capital" of Europe. U.S. Presidential candidate Ted Cruz recently echoed this perception of Molenbeek when talking about strategies to contain terrorism.

My work with the Citizen Empowerment Project motivated me to visit Belgium and see the experience of Belgian youth and newcomers firsthand. I have been in Molenbeek for most of the last 6 weeks and my perception of this community has evolved to see its complexity, diversity and potential. I hope my perspective on Molenbeek might encourage others to look beyond the headlines related to the terrorist attacks in Brussels and try to understand this community for everything that it is.

The first stop on my journey to learn about Molenbeek was JES, a Belgian youth-serving organization that is a self-described urban laboratory headquartered in Molenbeek. What interested me about JES and continues to impress me is the combination of formal and informal relationships they build with youth. JES focuses on empowering youth to be co-owners of their lives and develop their leadership potential.

Some of the JES programs and services I've been able to observe and participate in include formal education programs for vocational and part-time students and youth outreach work. JES has also built a strong network of hundreds of volunteers in Molenbeek by offering leadership courses for youth and giving graduates the opportunity to lead initiatives like sports or arts. Youth also participate in innovative multimedia programs that create videos and Android games.

Up to this point one of the highlights for me in visiting Molenbeek has been speaking with participants in the JES cooking program, which prepares youth to work in restaurants. I worked in kitchens for years when I was a student and I know the important life lessons one gets from working behind a stove. It was great to see the entrepreneurial spirit that those students have to take the opportunities in front of them and make a better life for themselves and their families. JES also hosts a popular leadership program in Molenbeek that trains youth from across Brussels to organize programs and services in their communities. Nabil Fallah, a graduate of this program, was recently featured in an ABC News story about Molenbeek.

In my time with JES I've been able to converse with dozens of youth who live or work in Molenbeek. I've also been able to meet dozens of youth through other organizations, like the Association de la Jeunesse Molenbeek (Molenbeek Youth Association) of D'Broej. It has been a privilege to get to know the youth of Molenbeek beyond the scope of the radicalization issue and see the vast majority of young people here who have absolutely nothing to do with radicalization and extremism. I have seen their dreams and hopes, their intelligence, their talent, their work ethic and their need to have fun like youth from anywhere else.

These experiences have given me an informative introduction to what Molenbeek is like today, but also what Molenbeek might look like in the future. There are many talented young leaders in Molenbeek who are learning, growing and engaging with youth-serving organizations in this community. Through these programs they are building the skills and perspectives necessary to become current and future leaders in Belgian society. And they are doing this while combating the daily pessimism about Molenbeek offered by news media, politicians and, in many cases, fellow residents of Molenbeek. If they are given the opportunities they need to live up to this potential, Molenbeek can play an important role in leading Europe to further prosperity and equality.

Last week I had the chance to share some of what I've learned so far with graduate students from DePaul University in Chicago, who were visiting Brussels and had their trip shaken up by the terrorist attacks here. The experience felt like stepping back in a time machine, back to 6 weeks ago when I also knew nothing of Molenbeek outside of what was reported in the news. It was the first time I became really aware of how much I've learned since coming here. Or, more accurately, how much I've been taught by youth in this community and those who serve them. I hope others will take the time to learn from Molenbeek, too.