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article imageChild immigrant turned Rotterdam mayor aids refugees

By Jo Biddle (AFP)     Oct 20, 2015 in World

Ahmed Aboutaleb knows what it's like to arrive as a child destitute in a strange land. Now with Europe bitterly divided over the refugee crisis, Holland's first Muslim immigrant mayor is offering asylum-seekers shelter and hope.

Four decades after leaving Morocco with his family, Aboutaleb, mayor of Rotterdam since 2009, connects more intimately than most with the complex issues at the heart of Europe's worst migrant crisis since World War II.

"I don't have a recipe. I have my own experiences, and I have my policy in my city," he told AFP.

Already well-known in his adopted homeland, Aboutaleb shot to international fame in the wake of the attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January.

With characteristic bluntness, he stunned a live television audience saying Muslims who disliked western culture should "pack their bags" and "fuck off".

Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb's success in Rotterdam  home to more than 600 000 people of 170 nationali...
Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb's success in Rotterdam, home to more than 600,000 people of 170 nationalities, has turned him into a rising star of the Labour Party now tipped as a possible candidate for the next prime minister
Emmanuel Dunand, AFP

While Aboutaleb, 54, passionately defends an individual's right to believe in what they want -- "if someone wants to pray 24 hours a day what's wrong with that?" -- he insists no-one has the right to shatter democracy and use violence to impose their beliefs.

"As a mayor, I like people that have radical ideas," he said.

"Thanks to having radical ideas about the way to lead our civilisations and our societies we left the Stone Age."

"But that's not what we are talking about. We're talking about a group of people who are threatening others, not only because they have radical ideas, but they believe they have their own truth justifying their own goals ... by using violence."

- 'Jihad the wrong word' -

Aboutaleb first took the helm of Europe's largest port in January 2009 -- a sea-change in a city which once led a national anti-immigrant drive.

Tensions have eased in Rotterdam since the populist far-right politician Pim Fortuyn was assassinated in May 2002.

But with the Netherlands possibly hosting up to 60,000 refugees by the end of the year as an estimated 3,000 people arrive every week, passions are rising as elsewhere in Europe.

Born in Beni Sidel in Morocco in 1961  Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb moved to the Netherlands at t...
Born in Beni Sidel in Morocco in 1961, Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb moved to the Netherlands at the age of 15
Emmanuel Dunand, AFP

Not far from the Dutch border in the German city of Cologne, German mayoral candidate Henriette Reker was stabbed in the neck over the weekend apparently for her work with refugees.

And mayor Aboutaleb ran the gauntlet of an angry stone-throwing crowd last week at a meeting to explain Rotterdam's decision to help provide shelter to some new arrivals.

As the son of a Sunni Muslim imam, Aboutaleb also tackles head-on what he sees as a deep lack of knowledge and misconceptions about Islam.

"Jihadist is the completely wrong word. I am a jihadist. I'm doing the right thing for the city the entire day. I'm a jihadist," he said.

"There are 68 definitions of jihad, if you remove a spike from the street or a piece of glass ... to prevent a bicycle being harmed by the spike, you are a jihadist."

Government leaders, analysts and all those in a position of influence "need to explain to people what we are talking about," he said. Parents and educators all have a key role to play too.

Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb gives an interview to Agence France-Presse at the Rotterdam city hal...
Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb gives an interview to Agence France-Presse at the Rotterdam city hall in the Netherlands, on October 14, 2015
Emmanuel Dunand, AFP

Born in Beni Sidel in Morocco in 1961, Aboutaleb moved to the Netherlands at the age of 15.

His success in Rotterdam, home to more than 600,000 people of 170 nationalities, has turned him into a rising star of the Labour Party now tipped as a possible candidate for the next prime minister.

- 'Basic humanity' -

His growing profile has also won him invitations to the White House and the United Nations General Assembly to meet global leaders grappling with the rise of the Islamic State group.

"I have experienced what it is to go to bed without food... walking without shoes, I know how that feels. Living outside and it's cold and you didn't have a proper coat, I know how that is," he told AFP.

At the beginning he wondered if he would ever master the Dutch language or understand the people. "I went crying to bed during those years. It was not an easy thing to adapt."

But his teenage experiences are not the "main driver" behind his insistence that no asylum-seeker should sleep rough on the city's streets.

That philosophy he puts down to "basic thinking about humanity".

"During the war, this city received a lot of support and assistance when the people ... were in need," Aboutaleb said.

Rotterdam was heavily bombed in World War II, and thousands of soldiers from around the world fought to help the Dutch against the Nazis.

"Solidarity means something reciprocal. In those days my city was in need of support, and nowadays others are in need of support," he said simply.

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