The other side of Molenbeek

Bottom-up initiatives connecting people in different ways

This program was made in collaboration with deBuren

During the last day of the New Europe City Makers Summit, City Makers discussed the future of City Making in a number of different sessions. The Neighbourhood Community session discussed initiatives from Brussel. The neighbourhood Molenbeek, got the chance to share their story. Circus Zonder Handen (Circus Without Hands), Ras El Hanout, Collect’actif and VZW Toestand all create social impact in a city where many different cultures live next to each other. They do so by connecting people, letting them share their stories, teaching them how to express themselves creatively, cook and provide an affordable meal or just let them do whatever they want. 

Molenbeek, a dangerous place?

Ever since it became known that some of the terrorists of the Paris attacks in November 2015 came from the Molenbeek (Brussels), the neighbourhood has developed a terrible reputation. It is perceived as a dangerous place that is inhabited mostly by immigrants and Muslims, who don’t take part in the Belgian society. Although Molenbeek definitely has socio-economic problems, there are also positive stories to tell. People from all kinds of backgrounds are trying to improve cohesion and overall life in the neighbourhood. This is primarily being done through bottom-up initiatives. A couple of these initiatives were presented during the New Europe City Makers Summit.

Connecting through food

Because there is a lot of poverty in the area, it is helpful to provide the citizens with cheap meals. Giovanna Piazza works at Collect’actif, an initiative that connects people from the neighbourhood through food. First of all, they provide cheap meals by using food supermarkets can no longer sell, but which is still of good quality. Everybody is invited to come and eat, or to help cooking the meals. The initiators specifically try to get as many people as possible involved from different cultures, to bring them together through the positive experience of preparing and consuming meals.

“Our lives become meaningful because of our humanity, our humanity comes to life when we give it meaning.”


Forgotten buildings offer freedom to create social value

Just like many in other cities, there is a lot of vacancy in Brussels. Toestand is an organisation that ‘reactivates’ forgotten buildings or areas by creating temporary and autonomous socio-cultural centers. The site of their current project, Allee Du Kaai, will be redeveloped as a park in the future. For now, it is a place for the neighbourhood, where kids can take part in boxing lessons or ping-pong battles or play in the skatepark and where the homeless are invited for workshops. The main goal is to get as many people as possible to not only visit the space but also use it in a way that allows them to feel free and do whatever they want. As it is a temporary location and it will be torn down in the future the initiators are free to use the space as they like, which is according to Felix – who works at Toestand – very important for the organisation. Gradually, their mission has become more oriented towards social goals because they saw how important it is for a neighbourhood to have a space where people from all kinds of backgrounds can meet and do things together.

“Dialogue, creation, autonomy and action are crucial.”

© Toestand

Using leisure activities to stimulate cohesion

Circus Zonder Handen is a circus school with a grand social mission. The organisation increases social cohesion in mixed, poor neighbourhoods in Brussels by offering lessons on any circus skill. During the lessons kids also learn various social skills, which enables them to access educational and employment opportunities. For instance, the teamwork needed to build a human pyramid teaches kids to communicate, learn new tricks and performing it for an audience increases confidence levels as well. Circus Zonder Handen aims to be a meeting place for everyone, regardless of their talents, limitations and regardless of cultural, religious or financial circumstances.

“Because we believe that leisure activities are valuable for everybody, we try to make ourselves available to everyone. This way we create connections and promote individual development for everyone in Brussels.”


Breaking the ice with theatre

The team of Ras El Hanout (a Moroccan spice mix) started off by making a theatre performance about discrimination and racism. This evoked a lot of reactions, both positive and negative. The group decided to use theatre not only as a way to inform people about Muslim culture, but also to address sensitive topics. They use plenty of humour in their performances, which helps them to loosen up any sensitivities surrounding delicate subjects. In all their work, they present themselves as young Muslims on purpose, even though people don’t always react well to this. Besides their own plays, they have started to work on different schools, where they create theatre performances with the students. They do so only by guiding them in the process, giving the students the freedom to choose which topics are important to them and creating a theatre piece evolving around these subjects. Recently, Ras El Hanout has bought an old warehouse in Molenbeek to open its own cultural centre and theatre school called L’Epicerie.


Learning from these initiatives

Even though the initiatives that presented themselves during the Neighbourhood Communities session are quite different, they do have some similarities. All recognise the importance of connecting different cultures, and they do so by creating either an activity to do together or a space they can all use. For instance, at Circus Zonder Handen kids from different cultures learn to work together, while before, they might not even play with each other on the street. Both Circus Zonder Handen and Ras El Hanout show the social impact that cultural activities can have on kids, and through them, on communities. Muslims kids learn to express themselves by creating performances on sensitive cultural issues, thereby also breaking open the discussion surrounding the subject. These initiatives show us that we should not underestimate the social impact of cultural activities or the way children can help to open up communities, by teaching them to work together.

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