Traveling Thoughts: Day 1

Brussels, Belgium

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January 9, 2018 / 9:51PM

I’m writing this in a very confused state as I’m running on about 3 hours of sleep, and while I’m about to go to bed, my body still thinks its 4:00 in the afternoon.

Nonetheless, I wanted to record my thoughts while they were still fresh. I’ve officially spent my first 12 hours in Europe.


On the plane ride, I sat next to a small, friendly, old Italian man. I told him I was traveling to Brussels, and then to Freiburg and Heidelberg — he asked if I spoke German, and I admitted not very well. “Ahhh, nicht so gut!” he laughed forgivingly. I listened to him exchange small talk in French with a man sitting in front of us, and he spoke excellent English, albeit in a very thick Italian accent. I soon realized this would be the first instance of many throughout this trip where I felt profoundly insecure and incompetent in my inability to speak more than one language.

One comment my old friend made that I found funny was in his response to my familial ties to Germany. He said, “It’s better to be German than to be American I think. Germans are very precise… in America there are a lot of discrepancies.” I thought ‘discrepancies’ was a delightfully odd yet all-encompassing word to describe life in America, especially in the past year.


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‘The Future is Europe’ mural spotted on the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel.

Soon after arriving at the hotel, we listened to a lecture by Lieutenant-Colonel Serge Stroobants, a professor at Vesalius College Brussels, about the Global Terrorism Index and radicalization in Belgium.

A few takeaways:

  • The distinction between terrorists and insurgents: Terrorism is aimed at influencing government thru public opinion, while an Insurgency aims to replace the government altogether.
  • Lack of integration efforts by Western nations to welcome migrants and refugees and embrace them into society creates an environment that breeds radicalization — people are most easily recruited to extremists groups when they feel marginalized and alienated.

We then went to Molenbeek, about a 15 minute walk from the hotel. Molenbeek has garnered a bad reputation as the “Jihadi capital of Europe”, with the perpetrators of the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris and the 2016 bombings in Belgium living in or having connections to the municipality.

We spent the day with the Deputy Mayor Ahmed El Khanouss, and spoke with the Mayor Françoise Schepmans (pictured below) about how they have been moving forward from this scarred past.

“Bad things have happened here, but more often, good things happen here,” Schepmans said. “The attacks were an electroshock, and everyone knows the danger for democracy. Everybody is now concerned about the education and formation of young people.”

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Left to right: Lieutenant-Colonel Serge Stroobants, Mayor Françoise Schepmans, Deputy Mayor Ahmed El Khanouss


Speaking of young people, this brings me to my favorite part of the day. We visited a tech start-up called MolenGeek, which is a free coding school in Molenbeek that is now backed by Google and Samsung. Young people interested in gaining skills and bringing their ideas to this creative incubator can do so without any prior academic or technological experience — in fact many of them are not university-educated. They learn entrepreneurial and development skills, and the founders of this start-up say the goal is to help them to start their own businesses and take control of their futures.

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Collaborative workspaces in MolenGeek

They can “leave their identities at the door,” co-founder Julie Foulon said, as large portions of those living in Molenbeek are Muslim, and poverty rates are high.

Seeing this space and talking to the people involved in this mission was immensely inspiring, especially seeing that this company is being supported by powerhouse names in the tech industry. It was also amazing to see a successful technology start-up run by a woman and a Muslim man in an area that is really benefitting from this type of space. Through providing creative and career opportunities for young people in Molenbeek, they are fighting against radicalization and working to redefine the place they call home.

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Murals of the founders of MolenGeek, Ibrahim Ouassari and Julie Foulon.

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