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Brussels: A city divided into rich and poor

Many immigrants cannot speak the multitude of languages required for many jobs in Brussels.

Although an estimated 80 percent of the city’s 1 million inhabitants are French-speaking, the capital is officially bilingual. From the police force to high street stores, employers demand that staff are fluent in both French and Dutch — the language spoken in northern Belgium. English has become a prerequisite for jobs in the cosmopolitan labor market surrounding the EU, NATO and other international bodies.

Those requirements, Medhoune said, exclude thousands of people in Saint-Josse and other largely immigrant neighborhoods who often speak Arabic or Turkish as their first language.

“English, Dutch and French have an economic value, they are the languages people need in professional life, these youngsters have a language which does not have such an economic value,” he said during an interview at this office in Saint-Josse Town Hall.

To fill the city’s need for highly qualified, multilingual staff, 200,000 commuters flood into the city every day from the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, along with another 100,000 from French-speaking Wallonia.

“These people take what jobs there are in Brussels and so we find that there is not enough work for the people who live in there,” said Faniel, the think tank researcher.

About one-third of Brussels residents are foreigners. Among the two-thirds who are Belgian, Medhoune said many, like himself, are of immigrant background. Belgium does not gather statistics on ethnicity so exact figures are unavailable, but the councilor points out that the most popular name for boys born in the city is Mohammed.

Despite the high youth unemployment, Brussels has largely avoided the frequent outbreaks of violent social unrest that blight Paris’ rundown suburbs. However, Medhoune warns that young Muslims risk sliding into crime and political extremism unless the capital of Europe takes action to improve their situation.

He wants the EU and other employers to hire local staff with minority backgrounds. Belgian authorities need to overhaul the education system to eliminate effective school segregation and ensure inner-city kids get the skills they need to compete in the job market with rivals from privileged areas.

“In Brussels we have educational apartheid, there’s no other word for it,” Medhoune said.

“That’s one of the great problems of Brussels. People support diversity, but they want selective diversity. They want Moroccan restaurants, Moroccan cafes, but they don’t want their kids in the same school.”

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