On 'Salma The Boxer': The chaos is something they did not ask for

Written by Leah Borromeo | 26 August 2018


Salma Abdesselam is a boxer. At fourteen years old, this Belgian daughter of Moroccan immigrants wants to become a boxing champion. She was raised in a Brussels neighbourhood called Molenbeek. Molenbeek has been called “a seething den of Islamist terror” and “Jihadi central”. Salma and her friends at the Brussels Boxing Academy call it home.

The Academy operates from a hired primary school gym with offices in a converted toilet. It has over 600 members - some from the local community and some from a motley crew of expat workers, students, bouncers, artists and hipsters.

Four years ago, Salma started copying her older brother, Mehdi, as he came home from training at BBA. Mohamed Ma’alem, BBA’s founder, says “no one had a season like Mehdi. He won everything, everywhere.” Salma started going to the gym and, thanks to extra training from her big brother, started to excel. Eventually, Mehdi got married and parked his boxing gloves to continue his education.

“We don’t just take people and turn them into boxers,” says Salma’s trainer Mohammed Idrissi. “Sport is a social ladder for young people.” Mohammed Idrissi was our way in to Salma’s story. A Moroccan army deserter who settled in Brussels, I was introduced to him via a friend who used to train at the gym. He has no email. He has no smartphone. We spoke by text and on the phone - he in his heavily-accented French which I found out he learned from the kids at the gym and me with my badFrench forever making errors which set people on the floor laughing.

I didn’t ask for much. I said I needed a young boxer - preferably a girl - who would like to be a champion. She had to have style, skill and moxy. She had to be okay with being followed around with a camera for two weeks. She had to have a story that reflected the wider struggle the people of Molenbeek have with the misconceptions around themselves and their neighbourhood. And she had to be good. At everything. Typical journalist.

Idrissi told me to wait. I waited.

Having spent a bit of my twenties going to squat parties and raves in Molenbeek, I knew the area had a “no-go” reputation well before the Paris and Brussels attacks in 2015 and 2016. It’s a poor area filled with immigrants. Society’s eye is rarely kind to neighbourhoods like this. But Brussels is a city comprised of immigrants - 70% of the people who live there were born outside of Belgium.

International truisms around migration also apply here, in the capital of Europe. If you’re middle class and can afford a nice apartment, you’re an expat. If you’re working class, you’re an immigrant. Half of these migrants are from Romania, Morocco, Turkey or colonial hangovers from Central African countries once colonised by Belgium. The others - around 10% of the Brussels population - are in town for work at places like the European Commission, corporations and NGOs and are identified as expats.

Just before Christmas, the wait ended. “I have your girl,” Idrissi texted. “She is 14. She is a committed and excellent boxer. Her parents are divorced so she has to ask her mother, but she’s okay with being filmed.”

When we finally met, she didn't seem bothered by the prospect of having a film crew invade her life for a few weeks.

“Cool,” she shrugged as she went back to Snapchatting with her friends. Apart from one night where she was grounded for staying out too late with us one night, there was no conflict on her part or her family's.

That would come from the gym itself. Having been the focus of a number of news reports only seemingly interested in BBA’s connection with nearly half a dozen young men who went off to fight with ISIS, they were in the throes of media fatigue. They felt that although the connection with one of the Paris and Brussels attack planners brought global attention to their gym, that attention wasn’t always good. The kids finally had a voice and numerous platforms for that voice, but the overall message was being drowned out by the spectacle.

“We are responsible for these young people,” said Tom Flachet, a trainer at the gym. “We’ve connected with all of them but the media are only interested in the ones who did bad things. Why aren’t they interested in the ones who do good things?”

“I’ve had trouble sleeping since all the press,” Idrissi once told me. “I wake up at night and can’t stop thinking about it. It’s not what we came here to do. Here, there is poverty. But it also has talent. This is also where the problems are and we came to help kids box and learn about life through boxing.

”We tread a careful line when filming - the gym is a shelter to a number of refugees and vulnerable persons, a place where they can forget their political situations and just box...equal to everyone. We had to respect that.

Salma, as she admits herself, is a kid. Global politics and the public's prejudicial gaze on her and her community only just dusted her personal radar. Until, that is, her mother got caught up in the Brussels attacks while she waited for a plane to Portugal with some classmates from nursing school.

Salma and the BBA are at the centre of a geopolitical tornado and the chaos it has wrought is something they did not ask for. All they want to do is box and teach others to box. Their determination in the face of everything from the media gaze to the threat of being shut down by authorities is a lesson in doggedness. It’s multiculturalism at its best: life-affirming and inspiring.