December 14, 2015
> WomenStrong International is committed to supporting women-driven solutions to urban poverty. We seek to change perspectives and connect people at every level. In this piece, Brussels-based urban design expert Racha Daher offers a solution to the spread of radicalization through poor urban areas that aligns with our beliefs: providing women and girls with their 6 Essential Needs empowers them to help end the cycles of poverty and violence.
It’s one day after the lockdown has been lifted here in Brussels – the lockdown due to threat of an ISIS attack, that is. I woke up with a terrible nightmare, one that terrorized my dreams. It was an actual bomb explosion that I was close enough to witness but not close enough to be in. I woke up breathless…and scared. Was this real? I reached out to my phone to check the news headlines this morning. Thank God, it did not happen. It was an awfully chilling dream. I took a breath, tried to brush away my fear, and thought to myself… oh no, they are in my head…
And this is exactly what they want: to get in our heads.
On November the 21st, in light of the events of the Paris terror attacks that found themselves rooted in Brussels, Brussels declared a state of emergency, a citywide alert and a high security lockdown. The underground public transit system shut down, schools shut down, and many businesses asked their employees to stay at home. It was a state of anxiety, people were already on edge, and the fear of an imminent attack was everywhere. Four days of complete shutdown and largescale social paranoia. Armed forces, police and security were all around, as we all tried to stay calm and stay indoors. The city has now resumed its activity, yet is still on alert.
Any decisions made at the policy level have direct impact on the city. When a municipal government declares a state of emergency, the city shuts down. So what can be done at the city level to affect policy? We all stand in agreement that something needs to be done to stop this terrorist lunacy and senseless killing. But what is to be done, and how? While actions may be taken to stop an immediate threat, the question on everyone’s mind is, why? Why are Western-city-born terrorists radicalizing?
> “The solution needs to look at the public spaces in neighborhoods and implement strategies to engage youth in community activities.”
It never made sense to profile people as threats based on their physical appearances or their nationalities. Many know how unjust and unjustified is the act of having to endure extreme interrogation for visa granting and entry into a foreign country, based on nothing more than a mere passport held. As we have been seeing since the emergence of ISIS, today a Western passport holder may be as involved in terror as any other passport holder.
The city – not just Brussels, but any city — is under threat of becoming the target of an attack. The city is also the place where radicalized terrorists are being bred. Well, let us take a look at the city, then. Many neighborhoods that breed crime look and feel rundown. Their public spaces show a lack of care, which reflects how their locals feel: unimportant.
> “Increasing police, undercover detectives and surveillance are not longterm solutions that will prevent radicalization.”
The solution needs to be an urban one, at the neighborhood scale. The solution needs to look at the public spaces in these neighborhoods and to implement strategies to engage youth and children in community activities that include everyone. Activities that can be seen in the open, that people can relate to and get involved in. Upgrading public spaces, and making them places that the youth can enjoy and want to spend time in, prevent those youth from being somewhere else. Such actions create a sense of pride and a sense of belonging.
When a space is active with people, it also revitalizes the area and improves its economic vitality so that its locals are productive and not in a state of hopelessness, lack of connection and anger that could lead them to radicalization.
Moreover, programs at the neighborhood level that increase awareness need to be implemented. How can cities protect ALL children from becoming terrorists, and from being bred in hate and in twisted iterations of a religion that is supposed to be about peace, not violence? No mother wants a killer for a child, and no mother of any religion agrees with the killing of another mother’s child.
> “This is exactly the time to start doing everything we possibly can to make change happen at the neighborhood level.”
If we can agree that children in the formative years of their lives — their pre-school years — are the most vulnerable in terms of what they grow up to be, then we can agree that there needs to be more action to ensure that these toddlers are not being neglected, nor exposed to environments of extreme ideology and high stress. There need to be more city-mom partnerships and city-mom programs to raise awareness about the importance of these years, as well as to offer a platform for children and mothers to engage in healthy activity. This is especially important in rundown, poor neighborhoods, neighborhoods with a lot of immigrants who tend to feel unaccepted and as though they do not belong. Health centers, cultural centers and public spaces are examples of places that can do this. Spaces like these can become grounds to breed healthy ideas, nondiscriminatory community connections and feelings of belonging. This is exactly the time to start doing everything we possibly can to make this happen at the neighborhood level.
We need to get over our individualistic ideas and start to think like an engaged community where we help one other. This transformation begins at the policy level and materializes at the neighborhood level. Policy needs to come down to earth, to the city, to the neighborhood.
Countries spend so much of their budgets on military and armor; but today’s war is at the neighborhood level and at the social level. Yet not enough is being invested in mothers and children in rundown neighborhoods, in programs that engage the youth or that target pre-schoolers in their most impressionable years – before stigmatization, isolation, fear and hopelessness set in, when dreams are boundless, and all should seem possible.