The Mechelen Hundred

Portraits of a city's people, today

Nestled between Brussels and Antwerp, Mechelen has often been overshadowed by its larger neighbours. Yet teaming up with the City of Mechelen, our line-up of 100 of the city’s most prominent people, places and projects proves the extent of its potential. From artists and creatives to critical thinkers and fighters, these are the powerhouses driving Mechelen forward one step at a time.

Muhammad Jarkas

Muhammad Jarkas

Referee in Syria and for the Belgian National League (1984)

Can you describe what you do?

I am a Syrian refugee from the city of Aleppo. I have been living in Mechelen for about two years now. In Syria, I was a football referee for several years before moving to Belgium, where I am now a referee for the Belgian National League.

Every morning, I go to school to learn Dutch, and I really enjoy it. In the afternoon, I go to training, do fitness or go running. When I have no other plans for the evening, I meet up with some friends and acquaintances to do some volunteer work with Voice Mechelen, a collaboration of Syrian refugees which focuses on the integration of our peers in local society. Together we also founded the United Mechelen Futsal football team, an initiative that helps newcomers to integrate in society through playing football.

How do you perceive Mechelen? In your view, what kind of city is it? Its people, its cultural landscape, its vibe? How does it compare to other, similarly-sized cities?

I just love living in Mechelen! It is a quiet, comfortable and beautiful city, and the Mechlinians are very kind people. I regularly get stopped on the street by passers-by who just want to say hello and have a chat. They recognise me from some articles and interviews in the local media, so you could say I have already made a name for myself in this city. I also like the historical past of this place, it gives the city a very unique character. The city is also very well connected to other, surrounding cities, and strategically this is a great position to be in. It actually kind of reminds me of my hometown Aleppo, although it is quite a lot bigger.

What would you say is Mechelen’s main appeal as a city? What gives it its edge?

The city council has made a real effort to turn Mechelen into a great and beautiful place of great cultural value and with a wide range of activities. Bart Somers won the best mayor award in the world, and he completely deserves it. I’m very proud to live here.

How has Mechelen contributed to making you who you are today? What role has the city played in shaping your outlook and career?

Mechelen has played a very important role in my life as it is today. My first months in Belgium were somewhat rough, which is norma,l considering I had to start a whole new life. But the hospitality of the locals, and the general effort that is made towards the integration of refugees and newcomers have all had a positive impact on me. I began to form relationships and friendships that became stronger day by day. With some help I was soon able to prove myself. I began to practice with local referees, and a few months later I was officially recognised as a football referee. In all honesty: my colleagues have helped me a lot without any hesitation, and I am very grateful for that.

On a personal level, what would you like to see more of in the city? What could it do better?

I really hope that the city of Mechelen will continue to increase their focus on refugee issues, as well as offer support and assistance to projects helping integrate newcomers. I think this can create new opportunities both on a human and on a professional level, which will reflect positively on everyone. I also want to make a special appeal to all refugees and newcomers in Mechelen: we have to make a concerted effort to integrate ourselves into this beautiful and open-minded society!

To you, what is the best way to spend a weekend in Mechelen?

During the weekends, it is always nice to invite friends over for dinner, have soem drinks and then maybe go out. I would definitely take my visitors up the St. Rumbold’s Tower, if they haven’t been there yet. It is one of the city’s oldest monuments and features a stunning view that stretches from Brussels to Antwerp, which is totally unique to Mechelen.

Can you talk to us about a local legend, a neighbourhood anecdote or urban myth that, to you, encapsulates the spirit of the city?

On the night of 27 January 1687, the St. Rumbold’s Tower was shrouded in mist. An inebriated pub crawler was walking home from an inn at the Grote Markt. Suddenly he notices that the tower was on fire. He immediately sounds the alarm. The whole city is in turmoil and the city council (with the mayor in the lead!) started to extinguish the tower in a hurry. Along the tower stairs buckets of water went from hand to hand, but before they even reached the top, the moon shone through the mist and the glow has disappeared … The courageous and fearless Malinois tried to extinguish the moon!