The story of Abdel Wahhabi, a Belgian olympic boxer is the latest feature of a series of stories produced by our Belgian member in Flanders, VVH. 'Proud of my roots' has been compiling very human and touching stories of popular and inspiring Flemish sportsmen, musicians, actors, religious leaders, journalists, doctors, lawyers, CEOs and more. Our communication colleague at VVH, Els Matthysen brings all 'Proud of my roots' stories and photography to life in the Fundamenten magazine. She also tells us that she would be very curious to hear the stories of celebrities from different corners of Europe. So are we.
Who is Abdel Wahhabi?
Born in 1964 (56)
Lives in the Kapelhof, a social housing project, since he was 10 years old
Boxing career: in 1992, he represented Belgium at the Olympic Games in Barcelona. He did not win a medal, but his dream, participating in the Olympics, was a reality.
Boxing Lessons and Social Work: in 1993, he started the OpBoxing project with the support of the city of Genk. Through weekly boxing training, he offers young people a framework to develop their social skills. For more than 28 years, Abdel Wahhabi has been working part-time for the city of Genk and part-time for the province of Limburg. In 2010, he started the Slagkracht project, which focuses on aggressive young people, young people who have committed minor criminal offenses and young people who are having a hard time with themselves.
His motto: do not judge too quickly.
To this day, Abdel Wahhabi (56) is the last boxer to represent Belgium at the Olympic Games (1992). In addition, he has been the driving force behind the OpBoksen project for 28 years, a boxing project embedded in the social services of the city of Genk. He works on the social resilience of young people through a preventive policy. Abdel grew up in the social housing estate Kapelhof in Elen, a borough of Dilsen-Stokkem. Later he bought a house of his own on the same street. Our colleague, Els Matthysen from VVH wonders why Wahhabi still lives in Kapelhof. Read along.
I meet Abdel Wahhabi (56) at his home in number eleven, a few houses away from where he grew up. It is a comfortable house. On the wall a gift he received from the IOC: a drawing with the names of all the Olympic athletes who participated during the IOC presidency of Jacques Rogge (2001-2013, ed.). Abdel points out his name to me. During the interview, his unbridled enthusiasm and somewhat haphazard telling proves to become a bit of a challenge to record his life story in a structured way, but eventually it all works out. For the photo shoot, he happily puts on his boxing gloves and shows me around in his neighbourhood, his “Kapelhof”.
Wahhabi was only four years old when his family emigrated from Morocco to Belgium. It took three days by car, and the long journey is still vividly remembered. How they arrived in Belgium in the middle of the night, how the highways and all city streets were brightly lit up, something Abdel had never seen before. His father, who worked in the coal mine in Eisden, rented a house for his family on the private market. When the social housing estate Kapelhof in Elen, a sub-municipality of Dilsen-Stokkem, was built at the end of the 1970s, the Wahhabi family was one of the first in this district to be allocated a house.
The social housing project Kapelhof
Kapelhof is like a long street that winds around a common square. Wahhabi explains: 'When you enter Kapelhof, you will first come across our house: a large family home with a garden of forty meters deep. After all, there were a lot of children in that family of ours, weren't there?’ (laughs)
What are your most cherished memories?
‘As a housewife, my mom had her hands more than full with so many children around. I have five brothers and three sisters, myself being the middle one. The house was heated on coal. I remember vividly fetching coal in a cast iron bucket, and the memory of the whole family gathered around the stove, united in cosy warmth, is priceless. Even though we had a large garden, we mostly played with friends on the square in the middle of the neighbourhood. Where you now see new social apartments, on the edge of the square, there used to be large trees. Everyone knew one another. It was a fantastic time. I was an energetic little boy, but not always the easiest on the block, and must admit that I was often ready to play some mischievous prank. For example, I often went to “peck” the neighbours’ cherries (laughs heartily). There was a lot of social contact, and if some problem arose, somehow we always found a solution to fix it. When we first moved here, as a Moroccan family, we were very strange to many people. It was the late 1970s, and many Belgian people had never met Moroccans before. They were really curious and came to us with toys for the children. We were received very warmly, which is not always the case today, when many people think there are far too many of us around.’
"I have been running with my neighbour every Sunday for 18 years. Sport is able to bring people together, it can give you a purpose in life"
Moving from No.1 to No. 11
Wahhabi continues: ‘When I got married, I bought a house on the same street where I grew up. The man who sold it to me used to be a social tenant for many years, but had eventually been able to purchase it and become a home owner. And by selling it to me he helped me in a way to fulfil the same dream. Even though my wife and I have separated since, I still live in the same dwelling Kapelhof number eleven, and I hope to find a new partner soon, and to continue living here for a long time to come (laughs). But why do I like living here so much? Well, a main reason is that I always wanted to live close to my relatives (Abdel's mother still lives in the parental home, ed.). And of course I especially like the place where I grew up as a kid and where I had such wonderful years. And lastly, it is such a quiet and above all a safe place to be: I have never - not even once - been in a fight here. But I do regret that over the last few years life in this neighbourhood has become more anonymous. I don't know everyone anymore and that is a pity. On the other hand I’ve stayed very close with a lot of my neighbours: there is one friend I have been running with on every Sunday for the last eighteen years. Sport can and does connect people, it will give you a purpose and my running mate is living proof of that. As I work in Genk, I usually get home pretty late, usually around 10pm, but it is always so nice to come home.’
"Why do I like living here so much? It is a very quiet and above all a safe neighbourhood"
How did you take up boxing?
‘As a kid I used to play soccer in the neighbourhood team. I played forward, but I didn't score any goals. That was very frustrating, and in order to make a difference in the team, I quickly took on a mediating role. And there lies the seed for what I did after my boxing career. But I'm getting ahead of things. I started boxing when I was 16, quite by accident. A friend had taken me to a boxing workout. I immediately had a taste for it.' Abdel shows one of the basic movements and explains: 'The 'left direct', but you have to train it for years. It should become automatic.’
In 1992, after nine years of intensive training, he represented Belgium at the Olympic Games in Barcelona. He did not win a medal, but his dream, participating in the Olympics, was a reality.
Socially engaged teaching young people values through sport
After his Olympic participation, Wahhabi quits boxing and asks himself how he could use his skills to do something meaningful for socially vulnerable young people. ‘I wrote to various former mining municipalities in the province of Limburg. The doctor who had operated on me just before the Olympics – my nasal bone was broken in eight places – helped me put a plan on paper: teach young people to live better through boxing, instead of letting off steam in violence and crime, teach them to do it in a responsible way.’ There was a lot of resistance at first. Boxing as an educational tool for underprivileged youngsters is not obvious. The city of Genk was the first to join the story.
"I am one hundred percent sure that a boxing club can help to keep young people off the streets"
Alternative youth work with disadvantaged groups
‘In order to convince municipal authorities, I literally went to visit the young people in their own neighbourhoods. The first two years I trained them in sports and youth halls. But soon I felt that the lessons should be centralized. The neighbourhood youngsters had to come out of their nest and get in touch with other youngsters. At my suggestion, the city of Genk – in 1992 – invited all Genk children between 12 and 18 to the sports center. Thanks to my name recognition, five hundred young people showed up. That was the start for OpBoxen.' Today, Wahhabi has been the driving force behind this project for twenty-eight years. OpBoksen is part of the Social Affairs department of the city of Genk with the ambition of increasing the social resilience of children and young people through a preventive policy. Through weekly boxing training, they offer young people a framework to develop their social skills. Over the last 24 years, the concept expanded to twelve different locations in seven Limburg municipalities. Wahhabi: ‘We also have eighteen certified trainers who all come from the boxing project. It is very important that the trainers share the same vision: to bring young people to mental calmness through boxing. We want to train them to be responsible people and to teach them something in the field of sport. Boxing is an ideal way to channel the aggressiveness found in so many young people through strict rules. Young people who keep training, develop a lot of perseverance. I am one 100% convinced that a boxing club can help keep young people off the streets.’
Why social diversity matters
Wahhabi: 'Because of the multicultural nature of the boxing gym, young people learn to interact with one another. We let them train among themselves, which positively changes their stereotypical ideas. They also learn a lot from each other. For example, some young people do not have sufficient command of the Dutch language. They speak a kind of neighbourhood language, which often poses a disadvantage in finding a job. Through boxing, they also learn to improve their language and communication skills by talking with so many new friends.'
Alternative work during lockdown
Wahhabi is employed by the City of Genk. ‘When Belgium went into lockdown in March 2020 (because of Covid-19), I could no longer give boxing lessons and so I did alternative work: in addition to childcare in a gym at school, I also did door-to-door visits to contact elderly Genk citizens (75 years and older) to see how they were coping with these difficult times and all those corona restrictions. That was very meaningful and constructive work. What sticks with me most? Even though people may hold prejudices against you because of the colour of your skin, that can quickly disappear once people notice that you are genuinely concerned and interested in them.’
What has life taught you? How would you describe the wisdom of life?
'Do not judge too quickly. Because you can be sorely mistaken. Find out why something is the way it is and ask questions. All too often parents are blamed for the problems caused by their children, but always remember that they often only repeat what they themselves learned from their upbringing, as problems are often passed on from generation to generation.’
Do you still have a dream in life?
‘I have seen people grow and blossom through boxing. I want to mean something to young people, make a difference for them. When they tell me that boxing has calmed them down, that I have helped them finish school through boxing, then that means something to me. I recently ended up in hospital after an Achilles tendon injury. The doctor who was going to operate on me recognized me immediately, although we hadn’t seen each other for more than thirteen years. The last time we met was at a boxing training, when he came to me and told me that he was moving out of the neighbourhood and therefore could no longer come to the training sessions. He was going to university and study medicine. When, thirteen years later, he stood before me as a surgeon, I knew he had graduated. And as for my Achilles tendon, he did "repair" it brilliantly. (laughs)
‘And it's not because you grew up in a social housing estate that you can't make it. Ibrahim Emsallak, the current director of the Flemish Boxing League, grew up in a social residential area in Genk. He too was a Belgian boxing champion.’
What message do you have for people growing up today in social housing projects?
‘I would tell them: turn your neighbourhood into a warm place of togetherness. Meet one another, talk to each other, make people connect more and try to involve everyone. You don't do that by slipping invitations into your neighbours’ mailboxes. It is so much more efficient to go out and talk to them directly: ask them personally to join you and their other neighbours for a drink on the town square. A personal approach achieves so much more.’
Social housing as a source of solidarity, willpower or inspiration?
‘Having grown up in a social housing community I know what it is to be “simple” and I know that being “normal” is good enough. Growing up here means I managed to keep both feet on the ground. I realize like no other that you don't get anything for nothing. And my roots have helped me with that.’
Want to see Abdel Wahhabi in action? Watch his story on YouTube.
Would you like to re-create 'Proud of my roots' in your country? Get in touch with our Communications Director, Diana Yordanova for a quick brainstorm session or to be put in contact with Els.