Meet the people bringing Silicon Valley to Belgium's 'jihad central'

Molengeek aims to open new opportunities in a troubled Brussels neighborhood

It’s a little after 10AM on a Monday morning and I’m in the front seat of a black Mercedes, cruising around a Brussels neighborhood that has become known in the media as “jihad central.” It was here, in Molenbeek, that ISIS-affiliated terrorists hatched plans to attack Paris in November and Brussels last month. And it was here that Salah Abdeslam, recently regarded as Europe’s most wanted man, was captured by security forces in a March raid.

But on this bright morning, as I drive around with Ibrahim Ouassari, a 37-year-old lifelong Molenbeek resident, the neighborhood seems entirely calm. Veiled women walk along narrow streets and colorful storefronts, returning home after dropping their kids off at school; elderly Moroccan men drink mint tea at a corner cafe. And at one point, an older man flags our car down, asks for a ride to his doctor’s appointment, and hops in the back seat. After we drop him off, I find out that he and Ouassari didn’t know one another.

“It’s not very jihadist, is it?” Ouassari says. “It’s not Baghdad or Syria.”

Parts of Molenbeek hardly feel like Europe, either. The municipality covers a sprawling area of about 100,000 residents, with large immigrant populations from Morocco, Turkey, Pakistan, and Africa. It’s not far from central Brussels, home to soaring bureaucratic buildings and pristine tourist attractions, though it faces a very different set of problems. High unemployment and crime have plagued Molenbeek for years, and many young residents have struggled to find new opportunities — conditions that may help explain the neighborhood’s connections to terrorist attacks.

Ouassari wants to change that. Last year, he launched Molengeek, a working space and “pre-incubator” for young entrepreneurs in the neighborhood. Located in a converted office building on a quiet cobblestone square, the space is open seven days a week, and regularly filled with young people hunched over laptops or sipping tea. There’s no entrance fee or application process, and participants cover a wide range of ages and skill levels. Some come to work on their own projects; others come to collaborate or attend workshops. (A dedicated coding school is in the works.)

Molengeek

The converted office space that houses Molengeek. (Amar Toor)

In the working space, Ouassari and his small team help participants to shape and market their ideas, before connecting them with incubators that would provide the resources needed to develop a startup. The aim, he says, is to help "demystify" the startup world for young people in Molenbeek, and to open doors that would have otherwise remained shut.

Ouassari was born in Molenbeek to Moroccan parents, and he grew up a few doors down from the home of Abdeslam, one of the Paris attackers. He dropped out of high school at the age of 13 — "It didn’t interest me" — and worked in local social organizations until the age of 20, when he bought his first computer. He taught himself how to code, and eventually launched an IT consultancy. Later, he created a site called CrowdFly, where job-seekers can post their resumes without disclosing their gender or name — an attempt to mitigate discrimination against women or applicants with Muslim last names.

"We just want to give them the right tools."

"If I can do all this without any academic background, everybody in Molenbeek can do this," he says. "We just want to give them the right tools." 

Molengeek has secured funding from Microsoft's Innovation Center and other local groups, and has held a handful of events since launching last May, including a January competition where participants presented their startup ideas to a jury of entrepreneurs, businesspeople, and politicians. One of the winning teams from that event, a startup that would allow people with different-sized feet to purchase individual shoes, is now working to develop their idea with a Brussels incubator. At the end of this month, Molengeek will hold its first hackathon. Announced a few days after last month’s terrorist attacks on the Brussels airport and a metro station, the event aims to develop new ways for the city’s emergency services to coordinate and communicate with the public.

"We really wanted to respond to the attacks with something positive from Molenbeek," says Julie Foulon, who co-founded Molengeek with Ouassari and continues to work at an incubator in Brussels. She says young people from Molenbeek are too often alienated from the startup scene because they "don’t see themselves in it."

"The tech community here is very closed off, it’s very Belgian," says Foulon, who also created Girleek, a tech and startup site for women. "Here in Brussels, people of Maghreb origin make up one-third of the population, but they’re sidelined. They are never part of the tech ecosystem."

When I visited Molengeek this week, the activity was limited to one room (it will span the entire ground floor once renovations are completed), and the scene was pretty quiet. At one end of a long table, a veiled woman in her 20s worked diligently at a desktop computer next to a white man of about the same age. At the other end, a man in his late 30s, named Charife, spoke with Ouassari about his idea — an app for organized races and other athletic competitions.

"it allows us to become vectors of change in society."

Hamza El Mokhtari, a 27-year-old web developer, was in another corner of the room, finishing up the online delivery menu for a local Halal fast food chain. El Mokhtari has been working at the space since its launch, and was part of the team that won top honors at the first Molengeek jury event. (Their pitch: modular clothes.) For him, Molengeek has opened up "a new perspective."

"When we’re at school, we’re taught to conform — to try to be hired by a company or work at an office all day," says El Mokhtari, who’s originally from Morocco and spent much of his life in Molenbeek. "But entrepreneurship is a different way of thinking, it allows us to become vectors of change in society... It really opens your eyes to new things."

Molenbeek

Molenbeek is home to around 100,000 people, including a large population of Moroccan immigrants. (Amar Toor)

Yet the outlook for many other youth in the neighborhood remains grim. Unemployment among Molenbeek residents aged 15 to 29 is at 27 percent, compared to 19 percent for all of Brussels, and many Muslims — who make up between 25 and 30 percent of the neighborhood’s population — have struggled to integrate within mainstream Belgian society.

Experts believe that may help explain why ISIS has been able to find so many recruits there. On a per capita basis, Belgium has the highest number of citizens who have left to fight in Iraq and Syria, and Molenbeek has had connections to several terrorist plots over the years: the Madrid train bombing in 2004, a foiled attack on a Jewish museum in Brussels last year, and the most recent attacks in Paris and Brussels. Even the mayor of the municipality, Françoise Schepmans, has described it as a "breeding ground for violence."

Johan Leman, an anthropologist who has been working in the neighborhood for more than 30 years, says that some of the blame can be laid at the feet of the government. "Here in Molenbeek, clearly there has been a neglect of the education system," Leman says, adding that the state continues to focus more on policing the neighborhood, rather than addressing more deeply rooted socio-economic issues. Following the attacks in Brussels and Paris, "there has been no real response at the level of prevention or social initiatives."

molenbeek

The neighborhood has been connected to several terrorist plots in recent years. (Amar Toor)

Leman acknowledges that Molenbeek’s chronic crime and poverty likely makes it easier for ISIS to recruit in the area, though he says it’s difficult to draw generalizations based on those who have left for Syria or Iraq. A fundamental problem, he adds, is that young people in Molenbeek often feel they have no chance to succeed because there are so few role models they can look up to.

"We need more models who are successful, and with whom the kids can identify," he says. "Molenbeek is too often a place where talented people are born, they grow up here, and then they leave."

Ouassari hopes that Molengeek will give rise to a new generation of role models in his neighborhood, though he believes his efforts could energize the broader Belgian tech industry, as well. Sitting at a cafe terrace near the canal that separates Molenbeek from the rest of Brussels, he bemoans the lack of diversity at Belgian incubators and startups, and the racial or gender-based prejudices that have allowed it to persist.

"Thanks to Molengeek, we’re introducing people who, you can tell, have all this energy — they sparkle," he says. "We’re doing it for Molenbeek, OK, but we’re also doing it for the tech ecosystem. Because right now things are going well, it’s really hot. But if the industry doesn’t continue to grow and bring in new perspectives, that’s it, you’re dead."

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