Here’s something not seen often in the Dutch media: A positive message about Moroccans. On Tuesday, a movement initiated by a group of international students called MoRoc held an event to counter hate speech against the Moroccan population living in the Netherlands. The whole idea of the event was to have students transform online hate comments directed towards Moroccans into positive sentences.

One of the many large signs that could be found in the Theil building had an unfinished comment that read “Moroccans live here and…” The original comment ended with “are all criminals,” but students rewrote the sentence with more favorable phrases such as “they make the Netherlands whole.”

“MoRoc isn’t a political action group,” said Annemarie Scheepers, the only Dutch member of the initiative. “It’s simply a counter-speech movement that wants to create a more positive image of the Moroccan people. In the news you only see extremely bad cases of Moroccans, so what we want to do is share positive stories about the everyday Moroccan people who have become a part of Dutch society.”

Backed by Facebook

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Member of MoRoc displaying some of the rewritten comments in the Theil building. Image credit: Bartosz Zerebecki

MoRoc came to be through the Facebook Global Digital Challenge, a university competition held in more than 40 countries that challenges teams of students to counter the pervasiveness of hate and extremism on social media. Asked to identify a local issue, a team of eight international students, including one from a Moroccan background, met with Rotterdammers to see what problems were on their minds. From those conversations a reoccurring theme emerged: Discrimination and tension between the Dutch and Moroccan people. Backed by free Facebook advertising and a budget of around 800 euros, MoRoc set out to establish better relations between the two in Rotterdam, both online and offline.

“The main point is that we’re international students who feel at home in Rotterdam, but statistics show that 40 percent of Moroccans who live here don’t feel that way because of discrimination,” said Lena Bäunker, who studies communications and media. “We all deserve to feel at home in our own city. That’s why we made #WeRideTheSameBike our motto.”

Backlash

Although MoRoc’s message is one of positivity, some have not requited that same feeling back to the initiative. The digital movement has faced backlash from a number of people, with one commenter sending a wave of anti-Moroccan news articles to MoRoc’s Facebook page. Even offline, at an event similar to Tuesday’s, which was held at the iconic Markthal, members of MoRoc came face to face with people who hold Geert Wilders-esque views of Moroccans.

“We met people who told us that they didn’t have one good thing to say about Moroccans, claiming that they take Dutch jobs and don’t contribute to society,” recalled Scheepers. “But it’s good that we could have that discussion openly and try to change the way people think about Moroccans. In the end, we were even able to change some minds.”

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Moroc’s student leader Bartosz Zerebecki speaks with Open Rotterdam reporter Marwan Abu Ayyash. Image credit: Ivar Laanen

In the university setting, MoRoc’s event felt less like a political debate and more of symbolic gesture of support to the Moroccans of Rotterdam. Marwan Abu Ayyash, a video reporter on hand for Open Rotterdam, told EM he felt moved by the initiative.

“As a Moroccan myself, I think this message of positivity is only good for us,” Abu Ayyash told EM. “This just goes to show that our image in the Netherlands is becoming better. We’re finally seeing some positivity, instead of hearing in the news that a Moroccan did this or that bad thing.”

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