Meet Salima Belhaj, who took part in an exchange programme with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom Southeast Europe from June to September 2015. Here you have the chance to learn about the impressions and the experiences of the Dutch politician from Rotterdam as a part of the FNF SEE team.
Hello Salima, could please share a few words about yourself?
My name is Salima Belhaj. I first experienced the work of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where I have been the political leader of the D66 Fraction since 2008. D66 is a member of the ALDE party in the European Parliament. Furthermore, I am a progressive liberal with a Moroccan and Muslim background. Since 2001 I have participated in many national debates about Islam and integration in the Netherlands. Having obtained a Bachelor’s degree in International Human Resources Management, I am a former German Marshall Fellow, and I am currently doing my Master’s degree in International Relations in Historical Perspective at the University of Utrecht.
What position did you have in FNF SEE and for how long?
I worked as a trainee in the Project Office for Southeasteurope of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Sofia for 3 months, from June to September. I was particularly interested in the October 2015 local elections in Bulgaria and included the topic in a research which I carried out, as a part of my Master`s studies. Furthermore, I will continue to do practical research on the challenges for the (liberal) political parties related to local elections and on the ways professionalization can contribute to democratization building. As a trainee, I mostly participated in the regular work process and assisted the office with researches and analyses.
What are the most valuable insights that you will take from your FNF experience?
I did not know much about Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, and Moldova before joining FNF, especially about the struggle that Bulgaria still experiences, 25 years after breaking up with the communist totalitarian regime. I now have a better insight and have learned from first hand what it means for a nation to be strangling with a difficult transition process for 25 years. For Bulgaria, it is also crucial that political changes have not been implemented as fast as they should have been, especially after joining the European Union in 2007.
What is your biggest achievement in FNF SEE which you are most proud of and/or most happy with?
Before joining FNF I expected that I would have to overcome two cultural differences: to understand the way Bulgarian culture works and to do this in a German Foundation, while coming from the Netherlands. Of course, there are always cultural differences, but as a liberal, I focus on personal individual aspects, instead on the cultural aspects. So I hope that I managed to work with my FNF colleagues as individuals and liberals in a positive way.
Why is the promotion of Freedom important to you?
Freedom is one of the basic needs of every human being. It is the oxygen of the mind. Freedom creates for me the difference between just living and being alive. Therefore, it is very rewarding for me to advocate for the importance of liberalism and personal freedom so that people can truly be themselves. The material aspects of life do not mater, if one is not free. Moreover, coming from a culturally diverse family with a Moroccan background, I had to fight hard to achieve freedom in every aspect of my daily life, from making my own decisions – to pursuing happiness.
What does the “F” of FNF mean to you?
Freedom! And Freedom means everything to me. The ability and the right to make decisions freely – I could not live without being free.
What is your “Freedom message”?
Don`t dream your life, but live your dreams.
This interview was taken shortly after the end of Salima Belhaj`s exchange programme with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation Southeast Europe in mid September 2015. Salima is currently elected Member of the Dutch House of Representatives.