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The geeks of Molenbeek defy the stigmata of the neighborhood

Ⓒ AFP – EMMANUEL DUNAND – | The founders of Molengeek Ibrahim Ouassari, a Belgian
from the Molenbeek district, and the French Julie Foulon at the
MolenGeek Center in Molenbeek on January 16th, 2018

In Molenbeek, an incubator of start-ups, MolenGeek, thwarts
the bad reputation of this popular commune of Brussels, with a
large Moroccan population, hit by unemployment and poverty, and
more recently haunted by the stigma of terrorism.

It is from the spring of 2015, before the Paris attacks (130
dead) cast a harsh light on Molenbeek, qu’Ibrahim Ouassari, a
young entrepreneur who has not finished high school, begins to
launch this project.

The idea is to speak directly to young people in the
neighborhood, for whom professional opportunities were limited
and access to technology reduced.

Ⓒ AFP – EMMANUEL DUNAND – | The MolenGeek Center in Molenbeek on January 16th,
2018

With Julie Foulon, a 36-year-old French woman, Ibrahim
Ouassari creates MolenGeek, which today attracts praise from
giants of new technologies and politics.

They set up a non-profit organization, to teach young adults
to program, offering them the ability to create websites,
mobile applications, or launch and develop their own
start-ups.

“We created a small gap,” says Ibrahim Ouassari, 39, a
Belgian of Moroccan parents. His childhood in Molenbeek and his
experience as a facilitator made him skeptical about the
usefulness of programs geared towards sports and other
extracurricular activities.

“We must provide guarantees to these young people so that
they have a future, a job, an education,” he pleads.

The association has some 600 members. About one hundred of
them flock to the glass and brick building where she moved
every day, to attend a programming course or to work on the
creation of her company.

More than a dozen start-ups have “incubated” in its
premises, including the creators of apps IT that lists the best
tourism plans of its users, and QuickLyric, to download the
lyrics of a song.

To young people from Molengeek, from all walks of life, the
incubator has learned to ignore prejudices about a neighborhood
associated with high unemployment, delinquency and
terrorism.

Ⓒ AFP – EMMANUEL DUNAND – | Tawfiq El Ouazzani and Ismail Mahaj, co-founder of
MolenIT, at the MolengGeek Center in Molenbeek on January 16,
2018

Molenbeek. The neighborhood of Salah Abdeslam, from which
came several jihadists behind the attacks in Paris and Brussels
in March 2016 (32 dead).

For Tawfiq El Ouazzani, 22, the Molenbeekois have no choice
but to “go beyond all that”. “Business is business, there are
many qualities here in Molenbeek, which is proof of that,” says
the young co-founder of the MolenIT website.

-A universal language-

Impressed by the success of MolenGeek, Francesco Zanchin,
along with other Italian entrepreneurs, wants to launch a
similar project for disadvantaged youth in Padova (northern
Italy).

This type of project, he says, brings
people of diverse backgrounds together and offers them not only
a professional future but also hope, rather than anger and
frustration.

“Programming is also a new form of language that can be
spoken with someone from another country, from another culture,
from another religion,” says Francesco Zanchin.

In the world of programming, no matter the degree.

Andrus Ansip, vice-president of the European Commission in
charge of the digital market, called MolenGeek “very good
social innovation” to meet the qualifications required by the
digital sector.

A model “to copy” in other parts of Europe, according to
him.

The association has attracted the attention of the American
Google, which has invested in the objective of teaching a new
public skills seriously required in Europe, says Lie Junius,
responsible for relations with the EU.

“We have trained five million people” in Europe, Africa and
the Middle East through similar programs, she says, “but there
is still demand.”

Ⓒ AFP – EMMANUEL DUNAND – | The founders of Molengeek Ibrahim Ouassari, a Belgian
from the district of Molenbeek, and the French Julie Foulon
welcome participants to a programming session at the MolenGeek
Center in Molenbeek on January 16, 2018

Same mood at Samsung. The electronics giant wants to help
fight the high rate of unemployment among young people in the
municipality, and also change negative perceptions, says
Michiel Dijkman, who works for the South Korean.

“If you can start your own business or if you have the
skills to get a job, then it will give you a positive attitude
in the whole neighborhood,” he says.

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