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Belgium’s African diaspora: In the shadow of terror

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Belgium’s African diaspora: In the shadow of terror

When we moved to the States in 2013 and our boys started school, they complained often of having to explain to some of their classmates just where exactly Belgium was (not in France, thank you). After the Paris attacks and the associated spotlight on Molenbeek put Belgium in the news, one of them came back and said to me that everyone at school now knew exactly where Belgium was – he only wished that that knowledge had come through something positive. The recent horrific attack in Brussels has cemented that knowledge in a very tragic way.

This attack has also brought terrorism, in a more personal way, to my family’s doorstep. Zaventem airport is one we have used numerous times. A friend’s daughter was on the affected metro. A Nigerian friend was in the arrivals hall  when the bomb went off. Fortunately, both were safely evacuated. There has been an outpouring of messages of support and concern from friends all over the world asking if our family and friends back in Belgium are fine. My response to all the messages is the same: everyone is fine but shaken. My Muslim friends are especially worried that in an atmosphere where the rhetoric around Islam is already biased, this will exacerbate an already bad situation. There have been attacks on Muslims by anti-immigrant protesters and this month, a Muslim woman was deliberately run down by a car. In a country that, according to a recent UN study, is not particularly migrant friendly, relationships between the natives and the “other” are bound to get worse.

Yet it is obvious that what is needed is not further alienation and stigmatisation of a specific population group (which does enable radicalisation) but a thorough examination of the reasons why young men, born and bred in Belgium, would choose to align themselves with a group determined to destroy everything their parents came to the West for.

The divisive rhetoric of “them” and “us” is effective mostly because Belgians of a different colour, no matter how long they have lived in the country and regardless of whether or not they were born in Belgium are referred to (and regarded) as “allochtoon” (“from foreign soil”). They can never, unlike their white counterparts, cross the boundary into being “proper” Belgians. My children, born and raised in Belgium, with a Belgian father, have been complimented on their flawless Flemish “for an allochtoon.” And they have been asked on more than one occasion, “ Where are you really from?” My oldest was once told off by a teacher for not being available for a fundraising event for a school in the Congo (I believe), “because we are doing it for you lot!” My son, who has never been to the Congo responded, “ I’m just as Belgian as you are, Sir!” It was not the first time his “Belgianhood” had been questioned in a society where nationhood and skin colour are conflated. And sadly, it would not be the last. This teacher was not atypical.

Unfortunately, one of the consequences of this unwillingness to accept that non white Belgians have as much right to the nation as their Caucasian countrymen is discrimination. Only 57 per cent of factories in Belgium have non-white employees, according to a 2014 study. A friend was told by an employer that she was sent to by an employment office that they did not want to work with an African. I remember going to an employment office once to register and being told, without being asked for my qualifications, that there was an opening for a cleaner and I could start immediately. The mother of Anis, a radicalised youth from Molenbeek who was killed in Syria, noted in an interview how particularly hard it is for those with an immigrant background to find gainful employment.

The devil finds work for idle hands. With its huge immigrant population, Molenbeek also has a huge unemployment problem and therefore a lot of idle hands, which gained it notoriety way before it became linked with jihadists. However, precisely because of this, it was mostly ignored by the government. Even after the Paris attacks, Molenbeek got only 50 extra police officers.

In January this year, the Police Commissioner of Molenbeek, Johan Berckmans told CBSN in an interview that on both the federal as well as the local level, there were too few officers to fight terrorism. In his command and control room there were only 6 policemen monitoring over a hundred CCTV cameras.

However, fighting this war also requires long-term solutions. It is no coincidence  that many of these “fighters” are new converts.  New problems demand new solutions. The educational system needs to be re-evaluated.  It is therefore, perhaps, time that a more thorough discussion and examination of what real Islam is, is introduced in schools for students from Muslim homes. This will counteract the message they get from the extremists and wrest control of the narrative of what Islam is from those who propagate terror. And it will also by necessity, diversify the teaching force. Validation of identity also comes from having role models. A child’s first role model (apart from their parents) is very often their teacher. Further, a teaching body that is mostly monolithic (white Belgians, often from Christian homes even if they do not identify as Christian) is very often blind to the needs of students who are unlike it.

There needs to be a commitment to diversifying the police force. In 2015, Open Vld (a party for Flemish liberals and democrats) suggested ways to attract ethnic and religious minorities to the police force but the very sensible suggestions were met with ridicule by the VSOA (the liberal Police Union). The national vice-president of the union, Vincent Houssin, did not understand why diversity mattered. And by the way, he added, the police force constantly gets more recruits than it can use. The fact that those recruits are mostly white did not bother him. In Mechelen in 2014, nine out of 298 officers were non-white. Last year, the BBC reported that less than 10% of Antwerp’s 2,600 police officers are non-white. In my fifteen years in Belgium, I only ever once saw a black police officer. An all-white police force is by its very nature insular and does very little to encourage trust between it and the community it serves.

Finally, there is a real need to invest more in the marginalised areas around Brussels. A focus on renovation and brownfield development, with input from and employment of the locals can give these neighbourhoods a new lease of life and the people living there a much higher stake in the community. One who feels part of a community does not seek to destroy it.

Chika Unigwe

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