Young boxers at a Moroccan migrant-founded gym counter stereotypes that their neighbourhood is a ‘hotbed of radicalism’.
Across Europe, the far right is on the rise and it has some of the continent’s most diverse communities in its crosshairs.
To the far right, these neighbourhoods are ‘no-go zones’ that challenge their notion of what it means to be European.
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To those who live in them, they are Europe. These are their stories.
“Life is a fight,” says Mohamed Ma’alem, the founder of the Brussels Boxing Academy (BBA) in Molenbeek. “For everyone, for anyone.”
But in 14-year-old Salma Ben Abdesselam, he thinks he has a fighter who might just be up to the challenge.
“She is a force,” he says of the schoolgirl whose parents were born in Morocco and who considers herself both Moroccan and Belgian. “She has huge inner strength.”
Salma trains every day at the BBA, a club with 600 members located in an old school gym, where her father, Hamid Ben Abdesselam, is one of her coaches.
For the club’s fighters and its trainers, boxing is much more than a pastime.
“[It’s] a form of education. It’s a discipline. Boxing is what connects us,” explains trainer Mohammed Idrissi.
The club offers young people “an anchor, a place where they can find an identity,” says trainer Tom Flachet.
But they are acutely aware that they must represent not only themselves and their club but their district, which has long been portrayed as a “hotbed of radicalism”.
Following the coordinated attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, and bombings at Brussels airport and metro in 2016, police raided homes in Molenbeek, arresting several people suspected of being involved.
“Every time I turned on the TV, there was only that,” says Salma.
It created a feeling of unease, compounding a sense that their community was viewed with negativity and suspicion because of its multiculturalism, her father explains.
And for the BBA, it touched very close to home.
Ahmed Dahmani was a BBA champion. He was arrested on suspicion he had links with the Paris attackers.
“We think of him as one of ours,” says Tom. “He was a good boxer.”
“After what happened in Paris, they looked for him and found him pretty quickly. They googled his name and found him here, at the club.”
The BBA was closed down, at the exact time its trainers felt the district’s young people most needed it.
But up and running again, it has a lot to prove – as does Salma, who will be fighting at the Belgian Championships in Ghent. Will she be able to return as a champion and strike a blow for her club’s vision of unity and mutual respect?
This is their story. This is Europe.