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.

Saïda El Aissaoui

Saïda El Aissaoui

Social worker at Jam VZW

Can you describe what you do?

I’m a mother of 9 children, and work at Jam VZW. We provide support and mentoring to girls, young women, and young mothers. Our many activities are diverse: we help children out with their homework, organise group activities like swimming or hiking, assist mothers with administrative paperwork, provide Dutch language lessons… Basically anything to help young women find their place in society, with a focus on self-reliance. Having started as a local initiative, Jam is now spread out all over the city, with initiatives in every district.

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’ve always loved this city: I’ve lived in several areas across the cityver the years, so I’ve come to know a lot of people and find this to be a great community. I think the locals are most friendly and welcoming, and personally I’ve never experienced any racism here. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist in Mechelen, but just that I’ve never encountered it myself. Our mayor has chosen to lead by example, which means he has put aside his political background and ideas to listen to and connect with the different communities in the city.

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

It has to be its multiculturality, which results in a very vibrant cultural life. There’s a lot of things to do here, and many positive initiatives have been realised through the enthusiasm of the people and the support of the council in the last 10 to 15 years.

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

My family came to Belgium in 1968, and after living in a few other places, Mechelen is the place we decided to call home. The work I do here started out as a passion, but the City and local community allowed us to develop it into a professional organisation. Once Jam was founded, people soon found their way to us and we’ve never had to look for other work ever since. In fact, I recently decided to move from the Magandi (short for “Mahatma Gandhi”) district where I work, in order to reclaim a bit of my private life. People would come and see me at any time of the day – which is very understandable due to th nature of my work of course – but I also need a place away from work.

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

I think our police force should reflect the diversity we see in our streets. It would be a significant move to have more nationalities represented there, but unfortunately we still have a long way to go on that front.

If you had to take out-of-towners to one place that truly symbolises the city, what/where would it be?

Without question, St. Rumbold’s Tower, the new Hof van Busleyden or Brusselpoort. I think a lot of people would be interested to see the brewery Het Anker too, where the Gouden Carolus beer is made.

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

I’d say the epicurean folk hero Opsinjoorke. In fact, I know a man living in the Magandi district who could be him – that’s why it’s the first thing that comes to mind!