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Young Hackers In Molenbeek Work To Boost Brussels District's Reputation


When terrorists struck Brussels in March, first responders quickly found their communication systems were overwhelmed. They were forced to share critical information through text messages and services like What's App. A group of hackers has made it their mission to help emergency personnel. And Teri Schultz reports many of these geeky geniuses come from the same Brussels neighborhood as the radical Islamists who launched the attacks.

TERI SCHULTZ, BYLINE: Ibrahim Ouassari dropped out of school at age 13, seeing no future for himself there. Ouassari could easily have become just another disillusioned young Muslim from Molenbeek who viewed Islamist recruiters in the streets as a way out. Instead, Ouassari transformed himself into a successful high-tech entrepreneur. Now he's trying to recruit those Molenbeek kids himself.

IBRAHIM OUASSARI: I want say to people of Molenbeek you can do it because I am not special. We will try to help you - to show you all the opportunity in the tech world.

SCHULTZ: Ouassari's company, MolenGeek, offers a workspace and mentoring to help young people, especially local ones, develop high-tech business ideas and sell them. Co-founder Julie Foulon and Ouassari use their business contacts to help their proteges.

JULIE FOULON: You've got guys from MolenGeek coming, and then maybe talk to the IT manager of Procter & Gamble. That's great because otherwise, maybe these kind of people could not talk to each other.

SCHULTZ: After Molenbeek got a reputation as a haven for Islamist extremists, Ouassari and Foulon decided to create a bridge between their mostly Muslim techies and the beleaguered emergency services in Brussels. With Google and Microsoft among the sponsors of their hackathon (ph), Ouassari challenged participants to create apps to help rescuers in natural disasters, accidents or terrorist attacks.

OUASSARI: The participants want to really give in return a positive result from Molenbeek and say, Molenbeek is not really what you think. It's this, too.

SCHULTZ: The final projects included a mobile phone app to provide coordinates during emergencies. Another uses artificial intelligence to screen and direct emergency calls more efficiently. The Brussels official in charge of emergency services, Cecile Jodogne, was a judge at the event. She asked all the hackers to come present their ideas to her department.

CECILE JODOGNE: Certainly, I'm sure that we could make something with all those projects. In 48 hours, they do remarkable work. It's really impressive.

SCHULTZ: Molenbeek teenager Awais Tayeb Choudhary comes to the MolenGeek workspace after school almost every day to work on his own invention - a small tethered blimp that can float above emergency first aid centers to show where to get help. He hopes the Red Cross will be interested. Choudhary says having Ibrahim Ouassari as a role model means everything in a place like Molenbeek, where he says sadly, a lot of kids don't have any dreams.

AWAIS TAYEB CHOUDHARY: (Through interpreter) To find an example like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg is easy. But to have somebody who was born here, who grew up here, who succeeded here and who stayed here, that's the model we need.

SCHULTZ: Choudhary says the support he gets from MolenGeek makes him believe he can do it, too. For NPR News, I'm Teri Schultz in Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.