Der Boxclub Royal Gym in Mechelen.
Achim Multhaupt

Excerpt from change Magazine 1/2018: Home to 138 nations

Author: Torsten Meise


European cities of the twentieth century must embrace cultural and ethnic diversity. A visit to the Belgium city of Mechelen shows just how this works – thanks to its exceptional mayor and a series of initiatives that have paved the way forward.


European cities of the twentieth century must embrace cultural and ethnic diversity.  A visit to the Belgium city of Mechelen shows just how this works – thanks to its exceptional mayor and a series of initiatives that have paved the way forward.

Mechelen’s Grote Markt, located at the city's center, is an architectural testimony to the city's eventful past. At different times in its history, Mechelen has been a capital city, a seat of the bishop, a center of trade and, at times, sunk into insignificance. Dominated by St. Rumbold’s massive, though never completed, tower, the immaculately clean Grote Markt is also framed by medieval townhouses and a majestic city hall. Tourists stroll through the marketplace or sit and relax at one of its restaurants and cafes. But until recently, Grote Markt was anything but chic and glamorous. “When I moved to the city center seven years ago, my friends looked at me with horror,” recounts Hélène Stevens, “they couldn’t believe it.” The 32-year old real estate agent has just returned from a meeting on the marketplace with her colleague Martine van Loon.

Martine confirms that she’s lived here since 1999, but that her mother used to say that her daughter came from an area “near” Mechelen. “One was sheepish about living in Mechelen,” says the 47-year old. The city was considered to be an absolute no-go area. Mechelen had the highest crime rate in Belgium. The city’s historic streets were littered with garbage, one in three stores stood empty and women were afraid to go out at night for fear of being followed by gangs of migrant youth. As a city with growing numbers of immigrants, Mechelen was well on its way to becoming a multicultural nightmare. But then something exceptional took place.

The Grote Markt in Mechelen at night.

The world's best mayor

In 2001, Mechelen was the site of a political accident. The city elected a young liberal politician, Bart Somers, as its mayor. “It was a big surprise, also for me, I didn't even know where the mayor’s office was,” remembers the 54-year old. “Mechelen had never elected a liberal for mayor, that was not supposed to happen.” It’s a good thing for the city that it did. Everyone in Mechelen agrees that Somers has been crucial to the city’s transformation – and more. By combining his law-and-order policies with exceptional integration efforts, Mechelen’s mayor has successfully brought together 138 nationalities among the city’s population of 90,000 – in a way that is largely unparalleled. Since being named a “World Mayor” in 2017 by the City Mayors Foundation, it’s more or less official: Within his three terms, Bart Somers has created a model of integration for others to follow. How did he achieve this?

Within his three terms, Bart Somers has created a model of integration for others to follow in a new Europe.

As he walks through the city, Somers bends down to pick up the occasional litter off the street and places it in the nearest bin. When he sees a hole or some other damage along the side of the street, he takes a photograph of it and sends it to his office manager. “That was the first thing I did as mayor,” recalls Somers, “I targeted clean streets.” A smart move, particularly since Mechelen was seen at the time as being Belgium’s dirtiest city.

That image is since long gone, even in the rowhouse-dominated district of Pennepoel. Without Bart Somers’ having made note of it, one would never know this is one of the city’s most poor and diverse neighborhoods. Any attempt to find the clichés associated with kebab fast food shops is futile. The city invests in the district. Somers points to the newly cobbled and paved streets and to those in the pipeline for improvement measures. Behind the rowhouses, there’s a small park with broad green areas, a football field and play equipment for children. “We’ve renovated parks like this throughout the entire city,” says Somers. Because houses in neighborhoods like this have no garden space, it's important to provide an area where people can hang outdoors and meet.” But here, too, the city is careful to ensure security and keep things clean. The gates to the park close at night and its lanterns are wired with surveillance cameras that monitor the area.

Mechelen’s positive atmosphere. Mayor Bart Somers is pleased with what he sees in his city.
I receive a hundred letters per month from people asking to have cameras in their streets as well.
Bart Somers

In fact, surveillance cameras are today a part of the city’s infrastructure. And Mechelen has taken the lead in Belgium on this issue as well. Impressive surveillance camera “trees” have sprung up in spots along pathways throughout the historic city center. Some of them monitor traffic, automatically recognizing license plate numbers and issuing tickets when unauthorized vehicles enter traffic-calmed zones. Other cameras monitor public spaces. Though used only if and when something actually happens, the video recordings are a successful deterrent. The city’s surveillance measures, combined with the hiring of an additional 80 police officers, have helped push Mechelen's crime rate below the national average.  “Our inner city is now a safe place to be,” says Somers. Criticism of his strict approach is unfounded, he says. In fact, “I receive a hundred letters per month from people asking to have cameras in their streets as well.” Somers knows that without safety and order, nobody would support him in pursuing the liberal side of his success – integration.

A model of integration

The heart of the Pennepoel district features a sport facilities center that was renovated in 2011 and is also home to the football club Salaam Mechelen. As a symbol of the city’s success with integration, the club has been bringing together youth of different backgrounds since 1995. The club does more than offer them an opportunity to play football and futsal. “We also help team members with their homework, keep an eye on their school attendance and help make sure they stay out of trouble,” says Frédéric Thiebaut, who once served as the team’s goalkeeper, and is now the club’s president and a public defender. Salaam now also offers courses in Arabic. “Many Muslim youth are born here and speak only Flemish, which is an opportunity for Islamists,” warns the lawyer. “It’s better to have kids who can read the Quran and understand what it says.”

The football club Salaam Mechelen has opened up its clubhouse for small family gatherings

As places where youth of diverse backgrounds meet and where social measures have practical impact, sports associations are important allies for Bart Somers. For Mustafah Lahrach, whom everyone calls “Musti,” this was a clear goal when he launched the kickboxing club Royal Gym. In exchange for his handiwork in renovating a run-down gymnasium, he was permitted to use it for his kickboxing club. Every night, children and youth of every skin color and skill level – from absolute beginners to world champions – meet here to train together. “That’s my son," says Musti as he proudly points first to a lanky boy and then to a cell phone picture filled with trophies, “he’s also world champion.” Every other week, Musti heads out with club members into the neighborhoods of Pennepoel. They talk to youth in the area and encourage them to stop by the club.

Everyone in Mechelen knows the Royal Gym. And not only because of sports. When coaches catch wind of one of their protégés coming under the influence of extremist ideas, they respond immediately. This helps prevent many young people from heading down the path of bad decisions. The Royal Gym and other sports clubs in the city have been instrumental in helping Mechelen become the only city in the entire region that has not seen one of its residents head to Syria as an IS fighter and has not generated terrorists like those seen in Antwerpen and Brussels.

"Little Marrakesch" – a restaurant near Mechelen's main station at night.

A visit from the royal couple

Unsurprisingly, Bart Somers rarely misses the opportunity to point out the importance of the club's efforts, as well as the vision behind the ROJM youth center. Every day, as the center opens its doors, a number of children and youth come rolling in, many of them start playing football right away. “Normally, anyone can play football at any time,” notes Mohamed Belhadji, a social worker, “but on Saturdays, the first two hours are reserved for kids who've recently arrived as refugees.” The youth center wants to involve the newcomers from the start. Integration is at the heart of everything here. “We have about 1,000 youth here from over 100 nationalities,” explains Belhadji. This makes ROJM the most diverse youth center in the world. One place for everyone, that's the vision. Instead of having separate clubs for Moroccans, Egyptians, Congolese, Russians or Flemings, Mechelen has one ROJM. Everyone comes here to play sports, watch movies or record music. Today, ROJM can proudly point to professional footballers, hip-hop stars and Hollywood actresses who got their start at the center. Two years ago, as the youth center moved into its new facilities, Belgium’s royal couple paid a visit to the center with then-German Federal President Joachim Gauck to honor ROJM’s achievements.

In line with his efforts to maintain open lines of communication with the city’s stakeholders, Bart Somers also pays regular visits to the center as a guest. Maintaining this kind of exchange on a regular basis is one of the keys to his success, as his ability to bring these groups together. “We meet at regular intervals with societal groups to discuss things,” reports Yves Bogaerts who, as chief of police, has one of the city’s hardest jobs. Police in Belgium are still seen as not being particularly friendly toward migrants. When asked what needs to be improved in the city, Mechelen youth will point first to the police force. Bogaerts wants to change this. “Bringing diversity into the police force itself is my biggest challenge,” he says. However, he cannot influence local hiring. Instead, together with Bart Somers, he's developed a different approach. The city helps young migrants overcome the high barriers to entry into the Belgian police force. The hope is that at some point, the city’s police will benefit from these efforts. Everyone must talk to everyone – that’s the goal in Mechelen. The city's “Samen Inburgeren” (Integrating Together) initiative is emblematic of this idea. Since 2012, Samen Inburgeren has been bringing together the city’s citizens with its recently arrived newcomers. “In the beginning, their encounters are rather paternalistic,” says Bart Somers. A local shows “his” or “her” patronee the city. But when they actually get to know each other, emphasizes Somers, something else takes place.

Meeting spots for the mix of nationalities that call Mechelen home can be found throughout the entire city.

People begin to open up, talk about their hopes and fears, and they engage with each other as human beings, not as a Fleming or a refugee. That’s the point behind Somers’ approach to politics. “We live in a new, superdiverse reality,” says the mayor, who is also a member of the Flemish parliament and has recently published a lengthy paper for the EU Committee of Regions on preventing radicalization and extremism. The “new Mechelen” is here to stay. Everyone – whether an immigrant, long-term resident or native-born – must therefore adapt.

Thanks to countless measures and a growing number of supporters throughout the city, Bart Somers has in just 17 years helped bring about a new reality for the city that has led nearly everyone to agree that: “Yeah, ten years ago, things were pretty bad, but today, things are much better.” The mood has shifted for the better. Businesses are flourishing, the city is growing once again and empty lots along the narrow streets are being filled with new buildings that are worthy of an architecture prize. Mechelen, the city of trade with a long and eventful history, has reinvented itself – once again.

Bart Somers

Bart Somers

The Belgian politician Bart Somers has been mayor of Mechelen since 2001. The City Mayors Foundation in London awarded Bart Somers the World Mayor Prize for his integration achievements. His book “Zusammen leben – Meine Rezepte gegen Kriminalität und Terror” (in Dutch and German only) is a documentation of his approach to integration policy.

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