Investing in the youth of Brussels

The power of self-worth

“Sir, what’s your origin?” is without a doubt the most common question I get from students in schools in Brussels. First I let them guess. Unlike adults, 8 out of 10 have correctly guessed my origin after three attempts. With adults, it is barely 1 out of 20. It shows how self-evident the fact of diversity is for young people. They have no idea where Albania is but they do have friends of Albanian origin.

Valuing your origin

I also sometimes ask the young people who I coach about their own origins. They come from all around the world. Recently I talked to a student of Palestinian origin. His best friend has Congolese roots. A little later I was talking to two girls who are also best friends. They have Syrian and Cambodian backgrounds respectively.

Although these students have roots, which are spread throughout the world, they all share Brussels. They have many things to say about Brussels: stories, experiences and perspectives, however they have very little to say about their countries of origin. They often don’t get much further than simply naming their country.

The boy of Palestinian origin, for example, had no idea about the location of cities in the West Bank. He knew about Gaza, but it was impossible for him to say from which city or region his parents came. The Syrian girl had the same lack of knowledge about her country of origin. The Congolese youngster was only able to identify Kinshasa.

The next day I spoke with a young person whose roots lay in four countries, including Angola and Turkey. Angola is a country with a vast and rich cultural and musical heritage. I asked him if he knew some Angolan musicians. He had never heard of the artists I named. Even music genres such as kuduro, which is very popular among young people, were unknown to him. I asked him what he knew about Angola. “Nothing,” was his reply. He spoke no more than 10 words in Turkish or Portuguese. “Do you mind?” I said. “I don’t know”. He replied. His parents had not taught him languages and now he did not feel like learning any more. Dutch and especially French were sufficient for him


As you can guess, conversations about the ethnic and national origins of these youngsters are rather short on the whole. One important question I like to ask is about the dreams that these young people nurture. Rarely is there anyone with dreams. There are exceptions of course, such as someone who later wants to open a garage, preferably a Mercedes-Benz shop. But most young people have nothing to say. They are silent. They are even a bit nervous when I ask this question.

This is a situation which often occurs and hits me hard each time it happens. Young people who have no dreams are a sign of the direction our society is taking. That these young people have no dreams is related to the situation in which they find themselves. In the schools I visit and coach, it is a common story.

Migrant youth are massively concentrated in vocational secondary education (VSE), which in Belgium is considered the lowest level of education. At least 70% of the Maghreb youth are in VSE programs. Most of these young people have little or no self-worth. This is, in my opinion, a fundamental problem. Many of these young people believe that they are not worth much and they have nothing to contribute to society. They see no prospects for the future and accept their fate. If this is not bad enough, there are also teachers, youth workers, social workers and policy makers who have made peace with this structural exclusion. This is why the level of education in many schools is very low.

Generally, the teachers blame the students. The students definitely have some responsibility, but teachers, principals and politicians also have a role to play and must share the blame. The result of poor policies and educational provision is that, as the standards drop, it creates even less self-worth and opportunities for youth. We are stuck in a vicious circle. If we want to get out of this circle then it is high time that we act together. There is much that we can do for these young people to help them gain self-worth.

Parents who talk

Parents need to talk much more about their country of origin. I realize that many parents do not have the resources to buy books, DVDs and other material. Additionally, few of them are highly educated. However, they can talk to their children and tell them on a regular basis about the culture, traditions, customs, and religion of their country of origin. Creating a sense of family history including cultural perceptions, experiences, tales of previous generations, important family ties, music, language and so much more should be a valued part of family life. Research shows that talking and reading are two very effective ways to pass knowledge on to children.

To all parents with an immigrant background, I ask them, no, I beg them, to teach their children their mother tongue. I know we’ve heard for decades that we should not do that because this does not stimulate integration and interferes with learning and using the official Belgian languages. However, academic research has repeatedly shown that these are easily disproved myths. Besides the research, there are thousands of examples that prove otherwise such as the many people who master their native language and also switch fluently to Dutch or French.

The focus of parents must no longer be in promoting one language or the other, but in encouraging the use of as many languages as possible and even speaking these languages fluently. It is important here to mention that the sooner the parents start encouraging bilingual and multilingualism in the home, the better. In fact, research confirms that using two languages from birth is advantageous.

Positive Recognition

In addition to the parents, schools can also play an important role by recognizing and responding not only to the wealth of native languages, but also to the different cultural traditions and the richness of diversity. By recognizing this, we have to recognize the students. This will ensure that they are not ashamed of their country of origin. On the contrary, it will give them more confidence and interest in confirming their self-worth as global citizens.

Let me elaborate on this. What do young people of Congolese origin learn about The Congo in school? Only that Belgium brought civilization there thanks to King Leopold II. That the very same Leopold made Congo a private colony is just a detail. That he is responsible for one of the worst genocides in the history of mankind is not important or discussed at all. Speaking of genocides. “The only time my country was discussed at school is when we mention the genocide in Rwanda”, says a student of Rwandan origin. Another student was ashamed to tell me that she comes from Kosovo and is of Roma origin. These students see that nothing positive is emphasized in school about their cultures and countries of origins.

Congo, Rwanda and other African countries have a rich culture of traditions, philosophies, stories and more. Why are some of these not included in school curriculums? The Roma people, Kosovo and the entire Balkan area have an enormous wealth of dance, music and culture. Why is no attention paid to this in our schools’ arts, music and history programmes?

Imagine for a moment that these matters were discussed. This is important for all students. Not only does it confer positive recognition on students of diverse origins but also informs every student about the real wealth of their own roots and those of others in the class.

Strengthen VSE

Education can and must do more. The list is very long, but I provide only a second example. I have mentioned the students in the VSE. These students have no exams and therefore many feel as if they are already failures from which we do not expect much. How do we prepare these students for future studies if they decide to pursue a more academic path later, for instance, if they do not take exams? The purpose of education is to empower, not deprive.

I think that VSE students should have exams, which are tailored to their studies. Substantively strengthening vocational and technical education by introducing more general subjects would be even more important than only providing exams.

“Yeah, but they’re not interested. They want to do something with their hands”, is an allegation you often hear from schools. This is not completely true. Wanting to do something with their hands, or learning practical skills does not mean that they do not need more general knowledge. On the contrary: if we care about these young people, we would include more general subjects in the curriculum of VSE and even TSE studies, given the low academic level of these studies. By doing this I am certain we can ensure that young people gain self-worth. By accumulating more knowledge, young people have more confidence, which leads to more self-worth.


Youth workers, social workers and others who work with young people, need to put a lot more energy into constructive and positive stories. Due to the politicians’ current obsession with radicalization, millions of euros are invested in negative, defensive and offensive policies. Youngsters are being targeted for their identity and religion. Instead, we could spend millions in tracking and bringing out the talent and dreams that young people have.

It is here that people working with young people can play a vital role to seek out the talents and dreams, by guiding and strengthening them so that they attain more optimistic perspectives. Choosing policies and actions in this direction would give a boost to self-worth in young people.

I see the importance of self-worth that lies in young people who have it. Today they are eager to make positive changes to this society. This is the power of self-worth. That power is out there, but we are making much too little use of it.

The author: Michel THEYS

Michel Theys, a Belgian native, began his career as a civil servant, serving the public for several decades. After retirement, he shifted gears to follow his passion for journalism. With a background in public administration, Theys brought a unique perspective to his reporting. His insightful articles, covering a wide array of topics, swiftly gained recognition. Today, Michel Theys is a respected journalist known for his balanced and thoughtful reporting in the Belgian media landscape.

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