Anti-terror raids put Brussels at the centre of Europe’s debate on radicalisation. But at Les Ursulines skatepark kids from all backgrounds skate together in peace.
Links to the Paris attacks put Brussels at the centre of Europe’s debate on immigration, throwing up some heated questions. Is a lack of integration leading to radicalised teens? But at Les Ursulines skatepark a refreshing counterpoint is thriving, as kids from all backgrounds skate together in peace.
It’s a cold Friday morning in Brussels and Les Ursulines skatepark is empty. The park is a concrete island in the city centre that sits between the Gothic Notre Dame de la Chapelle church, a row of elegant Flemish-style brick buildings, and Brussels’ busy rail corridor, which emerges from a tunnel below. The quiet is punctuated only by the odd police siren and the crunching of metal on metal as trains make their way out into the light. In the summer months, Ursulines is a lively meeting place for skaters across the city. But on this late November day, as the Belgian capital emerges from a security lockdown, the park and surrounding streets are near deserted. After November’s Paris terror attacks, in which 130 people died, attention quickly shifted to Brussels. Police raided properties suspected as ISIS strongholds and the city was put under a three-day lockdown. Army convoys cruised the streets, businesses closed, and police requested a social media blackout. It took days for the sombre atmosphere to lift. If you believe the reports that followed Paris, Brussels is the poster child for failed integration: a divided city of immigrant ghettos, no-go zones and Europe’s “radicalisation capital”. But when Italian photographer Giacomo Cosua arrived at Ursulines in Summer 2015, he found a very different story. Over six weeks, he shot and became close friends with a multicultural crew of skaters who trace their roots back to Morocco, Egypt, Spain, Bolivia, Thailand, Poland, Greece, Turkey and elsewhere. Music, skateboarding and a punk attitude to life proved stronger than the cultural or ethnic differences that drive others apart. “There’s no common religion or language or background,” Giacomo explains. “Nobody told them how to integrate, they just have skateboarding and the friendship that brings.” At twenty-one, Fatima Chakri is the oldest of the group. She moved from Casablanca, Morocco, to Brussels three years ago to study landscape architecture. A girl with a hijab is still a rare sight at most skateparks. “I’ve lived in different areas of Brussels and in some places there is not a lot of mixing,” she explains. “But here in the city centre there are people from different ethnicities – it’s really multicultural. I think this diversity is what makes Brussels so unique.” The friends Fatima made at the skatepark helped her feel at home. “When I first came [to Ursulines] I was a bit skeptical because I saw groups,” she explains. “When you don’t know anyone you can feel like an outsider, but once you start talking with people, you learn a lot. Thanks to skateboarding, I was able to open my eyes about many different aspects of life, in particular how to integrate in this society.”
But there can be divisions, as Fatima readily admits. “In four years of living here, I can assure you that I’ve had many experiences [of Islamophobia]. Skaters accept you, but outside this world, it can be really hard on an emotional level when you get negative comments or reactions. When you are deprived of your liberty, it’s hard.” As if to illustrate her point, a kid in sunglasses sidles over to join the discussion. “The police always stop me because I look Arab,” he says. “But I’m Brazilian – I’m not a terrorist.” Wearing the hijab has provoked controversy in Belgium and other European countries, but Fatima insists she’s never questioned her choice. “I wear the veil because of my religious convictions,” she explains. “It’s a form of freedom for me and I think everyone should respect others’ decisions. My religion is really important, it’s my source of inner peace.”
“Do people fear me ’cause I’m Arab? No. People just see me as a punk.”
As a young Arab male, Fatima’s friend Ramy Taher, nineteen, is perhaps the most likely to be profiled in a culture of rising fear. He is Moroccan-Egyptian and moved to Brussels from Barcelona two years ago. “For me, it’s the opposite [to Fatima],” he says. “My family are Muslim, but I say very openly that I’m atheist. When I go on the metro with a punk or metal band T-shirt, sometimes people will look at me and say, ‘Oh, Satanist.’ But do people fear me ’cause I’m Arab? No. People just see me as a punk.” As we walk through the city centre, the heightened security is obvious. Soldiers with rifles patrol the streets, which are littered with armoured troop carriers. One spots us and I’m sure the gun turret is tracking us as we walk. The soldier shoots us a peace symbol, as we stare down the barrel of his gun, sending a mixed message of fear and reassurance. Street vendors set up a Christmas market while two photographers scramble to snap soldiers walking past the tacky fake-snow-covered huts. To say the atmosphere is surreal would be an understatement. “Since the lockdown there has been a notable change,” Fatima explains. “My parents wouldn’t let me go out, which is strange because they never forbid anything. But they were afraid. We all saw the news, we lived in terror for a few days. Eventually, I spoke with some skater friends and we needed to go out. You can’t just stay inside your house doing nothing, this can’t stop us from living.” As night falls, we watch trains wind between the tall glass towers, like glittering snakes, to and from the city’s major international station. The great transport links that make Brussels the perfect place for the EU’s headquarters are thought to be an asset for terrorist networks – and the city has long provided sanctuary to a host of sinister acronyms: the RAF (Red Army Faction), Basque separatists ETA, the IRA and now ISIS. Blame has been laid on a confusing, decentralised system of local government and a weak intelligence service. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence claimed that Belgium provided more fighters to militant organisations in Syria and Iraq per capita than any Western European country in 2014. Much of the attention on Brussels has focused on one area: Molenbeek – where the Paris attackers had their base. It’s a predominantly Moroccan neighbourhood that suffers from higher rates of poverty, unemployment and exclusion, which have helped put it at centre of concerns about youth radicalisation. In a widely circulated Politico opinion piece, photographer Teun Voeten, a former resident, wrote: “When it became clear the attacks were planned in Molenbeek, I was not surprised. The real surprise? That Belgium expressed shock at the connection.” Voeten went on to describe his “struggles with Brussels’ most notorious neighbourhood,” which he found “increasingly intolerant” and “hardly multicultural”. After nine years, he decided to leave: “I could no longer stand to live in this despondent, destitute, fatalistic neighbourhood.” Across the canal bridge from the city centre, Molenbeek has a noticeably different flavour. But for anyone who’s grown up in a multicultural city like Rome or London, signs in Arabic script and hijabbed mannequins are nothing out of the ordinary. In windows throughout the neighbourhood, there are the same posters: a black-and-white line drawing of the area’s skyline, with ‘M☮LENBEEK’ written beneath. Bie Van Craeynest knows Molenbeek well. As the coordinator at Chicago Youth Club, she works with kids from the surrounding area (the croissant pauvre – the impoverished canal zone). Two young men from Chicago’s spin-off boxing gym are currently in prison on terrorism offences. “I used to cheer them on during their boxing matches,” she says. Over the last decade, Bie has watched the lure of radicalisation grow. “Before, we would lose kids to youth delinquency, drugs or just a lack of interest,” she says. “But now it’s another enemy: radicalisation. Sometimes youth organisations or sport clubs are the last fine thread that keeps people attached to mainstream society. Once that’s cut, then basically anything is possible.” While she’s deeply concerned by the risks for young people, she’s critical of the way Molenbeek has been caricatured as an intolerant dystopia. “Everyday life in Molenbeek is pretty chilled,” she says. “I live with and am surrounded by so many Muslim people and I haven’t changed my lifestyle.”
“For me, [radicalisation is] just the form resistance has taken today.”
The young people at Chicago reflect the area’s ethnic and religious mix: it’s mainly Moroccan-Islamic, but increasingly kids with roots from sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America – often Evangelical Christians – walk through its doors. “People ask, ‘Are these youngsters integrating?’ They’re born here! Where would we integrate them in to? If you’re born here, you’re part of our society.” Bie argues radicalisation is just the latest incarnation of decades of simmering youth discontent. “The spiritual and intellectual neglect of Brussels’ youth is really appalling,” she explains. “For thirty years there hasn’t been any investment in decent schooling, housing, sports infrastructure. If you ask the older kids, all they want is better schools. For me, [radicalisation is] just the form resistance has taken today – not just here but in other parts of the world too.” In Brussels, tensions came to a head in the ’90s when youths from the canal zone started riots, torched cars and fought police. That got politicians’ attention, but in recent years they’ve ignored the outcry from Chicago and others about underinvestment, racism, police violence, the rise of the far-right, crumbling infrastructure and growing Islamophobia. “Our current neoliberal government has chosen instead to dismantle many of the social structures we’ve developed since WWII,” Bie says. “For me, it’s really important not to look at these young terrorists as monsters or aliens who live on another planet called Molenbeek, but as fruits of our society and the things that are not working.” “These youngsters never learned how to build something,” Bie continues. “If you give young people the opportunity to shine in a positive way, it’s really rare that they don’t take that opportunity. Once you’ve built something – you don’t go back to destruction.” Lights from the business district glitter in the water as Fatima leads us along the canal to The Hangar: an old warehouse building that doubles as a DIY skatepark. We push past the teenagers smoking outside into a huge room that houses an old bus, two mini ramps, a fun box and some rails. People are dragging amps and a drum kit to a stage in the corner, but as they see Fatima enter, everyone runs to greet her with a typically Belgian kiss on the cheek. Rumble Pit, the group’s band, begins to play. There’s Gabriel, who’s Belgian, on vocals; Thai brothers, Mulder and Bai, on guitar and bass; and Daniela, who’s Belgo-Bolivian, on drums. The others continue skating as the jam session gets underway and the roster changes constantly as people jump on stage, swapping boards for instruments and taking turns on the mic. Daniela Legrain Sanabria, seventeen, was born in Brussels but spent most of her childhood in Bolivia. “I think different cultures here in Brussels live more or less in peace,” she says. “There are always problems because of all the clichés that we have, but you have to be careful with everything the media tells us. I don’t agree with people who say that we have to stop accepting immigrants. It seems stupid to blame immigrants because the terrorists are one person in thousands.” The issue of integration, for European cities, is more pertinent today than ever. With tens of thousands of refugees arriving every month, fleeing war and seeking asylum, ‘integration’ is a word bandied about by politicians who stand on opposing sides of the immigration debate. But perhaps those voices focused on Molenbeek, who speak solely in defeatist tones, should take a leaf out of a book being written in their own city – a hopeful narrative of a group of teenage kids who don’t let borders stand in their way. “Our group of skaters is multicultural and there is no prejudice,” Fatima explains. “If you’re a decent person, everyone will accept you the way you are. They don’t reduce you to your physical appearance. That’s not something you can find everywhere. Skaters do not pay attention to where you’re from, where you go or what you have in your pocket, but who you are deep down.”