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.

Samira Essiaf

Samira Essiaf

CEO at SIOPE (1971)

Can you describe what you do?

At SIOPE, we aim to increase the cure rate and quality of survival for children and adolescents with cancer. Our organisation is based in Brussels, but I try to maintain a connection with Mechelen as much as possible. We have our annual strategic office meeting here, and our office outing to Mechelen has become a yearly tradition. My team consists of people of many nationalities: Polish, Belgian, English, Russian, and Moroccan, and it is a real pleasure to let them discover Mechelen.

For my job I need to travel quite a lot, but in my spare time I enjoy a nice jog in Tivoli or Vrijbroekpark, or a kayak outing on the Leuvense Vaart when it’s really hot. I’m also very active as a volunteer for several organisations that are close to my heart, including a number of Mechelen initiatives like ‘t Arsenaal/Lazarus and Sharaf vzw. And last but not least: on special occasions I host an alternative walking tour in Mechelen called ‘wie blust er de maan’ (which translates into ‘who can extinguish the moon’).

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?

Mechelen is a dynamic city on the rise with lots of activities and opportunities, an a listening ear for its citizens. In return, every inhabitant feels responsible for the city and helps to keep it clean and safe, which is something that I definitely haven’t or have rarely seen in other places!

It contains many historical treasures and traditions, but adapts them to the needs of a modern city. A friend who visited me once told me that Mechelen deserved the title of ‘Little Venice of the North’, because of the many waterways and beautiful medieval buildings.

You can go anywhere on foot, and if not there’s always a good public transport system to take you there. It is also the ideal place to ride a bike. Some streets are named ‘fietsstraat’ (Bikers’ Streets), where bikers have priority over cars. A unique initiative I have not seen anywhere in other EU cities.

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

Mechelen is home to many multinationals, but they don’t dominate the city. It is strategically located close to various big cities and hubs (like the international airport), but it’s also a place where you can immediately feel at home.

An appealing feature of Mechelen is the organisation of unique events such as ‘Mechelen Kinderstad’ which sees the children take over the city, and Maanrock, a free rock festival.

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

I started my career in 1998 as a lab assistant at Tibotec, a pharmaceutical company specialised in HIV, which was located in Mechelen. From here, I became involved in the startup of a new medical laboratory named Labcorp.

For me, that first job was the start of everything: it was my first time working in an English-speaking environment, learning to work and communicate with people of different cultural backgrounds and traveling abroad. I had the opportunity to work at a multinational operation that was just around the corner from where I live. It has brought me where I am today.

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

I’m proud of this city and the way it is growing now, I think it’s already an example for many other places. That said, I would like to see more small green parks with playground and benches within the city, where the elderly and children can come together.

It would be also be nice to have more illuminated walkways, especially in parks and at the Nekker. Last but not least, it think the existing craft shops and the small grocery shops deserve some more attention next to the big chains, they were such an important part of this city when I was a kid.

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

You can have a great start of the weekend by checking in at the Martin’s Paterhof hotel. It is situated in a former church, so you immediately get a taste of the hidden pearls the city has to offer. A lunch or dinner at the Vismarkt is a must. The place is truly a mirror of Mechelen: you can enjoy various types of cuisine, meet interesting people from all over the world and enjoy the nice view of the Lamot brewery and the Dyle river.

It is not easy to choose only one place that truly symbolises the city, and it is best to just ‘let the city be yours’ and discover your own hidden pearls. My personal favourite spot is the ‘straatje zonder einde’ (‘street with no end’). Not only does it provide a magnificent view of the St. Rumbold’s Tower, the name of the street is just great and it tells you all you need to know about Mechelen: it is truly a city that will never end!

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

My favourite legend will always be the story of the Moon Extinguishers. Whenever the moon is blood red, I’m secretly listening for the alarm to sound… Every newborn and every newcomer in Mechelen should get their own personalised ‘Moon Extinguishers bucket’!