‘I became a stronger believer in the power of Europe’
She knew that a degree in Public Administration would be a stepping-stone to a career in politics. And that is exactly what Leiden alumna Samira Rafaela (30) wanted. Thanks to preferential votes, this member of the D66 party is the first Dutch MEP from an Afro-Caribbean background.
This article previously appeared in Leidraad, Leiden University’s free alumni magazine [in Dutch].
Look closely at her background, you will see a wide range of influences: her mother comes from Curaçao but has Dutch-Jewish roots, and her father came to the Netherlands from Nigeria. Although he left it up to her, he did provide the inspiration for a ‘liberal Islamic faith.’ After her parents’ divorce, she grew up in Uitgeest, but carried on visiting the market in Schilderswijk in The Hague with her father. She embodies many different worlds. ‘Obviously, you can emphasise the differences between these identities, and people often ask about this. But I prefer to look at the similarities. I have embraced my diverse identity and can make practical use of it. I possess intercultural sensitivity and find it easy to see things from different perspectives.’
Rafaela was able to make good use of this trait in the run-up to the European elections. She campaigned intensively. She was in third place on the D66 list, a place that she had to fight hard for because some were not as enthusiastic about such a drastic change. But the country’s voters proved to have taken her to their hearts. Although D66 won considerably fewer votes than in the previous elections, Rafaela won enough preferential votes for a seat. She had managed to speak to people who felt their voices weren’t heard. She calls these voters new target groups. ‘I talk to them with a left-wing narrative. I’m not the only one, by the way. Other parties were also successful with their calls for a social Europe.’
‘For me, listening is key because if people are heard, they are less likely to be attracted to extremes.’
During her campaign, Rafaela called on her wide centrist network and visited communities in the city, speaking to citizens, small business owners and schoolchildren. And she travelled to the Antilles. ‘For me, listening is key because if people are heard, they are less likely to be attracted to extremes. I spoke to lots of young people. It saddened me to hear that they are so removed from politics. Someone in the prime of his life wondered whether he was good enough to join a party. We as politicians should take such signs very seriously indeed.’ In answer to the question of whether what she has heard has ever caused her to change her visions and plans, she says, ‘I’m more likely to be given the confirmation that we have to fight social and economic inequality and fight them hard. These conversations illustrate what scientific research has also revealed: the link between hopeless poverty and unemployment on the one hand and crime and radicalisation on the other.’
Rafaela is fighting a valiant battle against far-right populist parties that are also currying favour with young people –successfully too. ‘I find their approach wholly objectionable. It’s the job of politicians to obtain verifiable facts before they do anything else. Obviously I know – this is what I was taught in my Public Administration degree – that you then go on to interpret these facts and create your own version of the truth. But if from the outset, you tinker with the facts and figures, and then use these to promote racism and intolerance, you then end up with injustice. Can I give an example? Well, look at how the figures on immigration are distorted and then used to say: refugees are why you don’t have a job or a house. You feed sentiments that lead to racist exclusion and violence.’ When she thinks of Leiden, one professor immediately comes to mind: Professor Dimitrova. ‘To begin with, she was the first woman that I had seen in a lecture hall since the start of my degree. And I remember her as an exceptionally good lecturer. A university should be a place where you open your mind and see the bigger picture. With her was the first time that I had this experience. She dealt with abstract material on international institutions, rules and norms, but in a way that hit home for me. The penny suddenly dropped. I left the lecture hall as though I had been enlightened.’ And that light has continued to burn.
Rafaela is known for her activist tendencies: ‘It’s true – just don’t call it emotional behaviour or anger. I stand for an inclusive and just society and am prepared to fight for this. And I know that I show vulnerability because I stick my neck out. I do this within my party, and now also at the European Parliament, where I am focusing on fair international trade and social equality.’
Rafaela is used to prejudice and hostility. ‘I had a lecturer who didn’t believe me when I – with my name and background – turned in a well-written paper. I have also had a similar reaction to letters applying for an internship. And only recently, when I was registering at the European Parliament, an older man wanted to push in because he assumed I was a member of the supporting staff. It only makes me more determined.’ She has high expectations not only of herself but also of her colleagues: ‘What I urge all politicians to appreciate – and definitely in the European Parliament too – is that we are there to serve society, that we have to create solidarity and respect. This understanding of the job is distinct from specific parties. A lack solidarity and respect is deeply rooted in the conduct, language and rhetoric of all the established parties. I will keep on hammering home the urgency of change. I don’t care what others might think. And don’t forget that I mainly receive positive encouragement.’
‘Obviously I wanted to prove myself, and I succeeded too, which gave me a real boost.’
The European fire was sparked at an early age in Rafaela. ‘The news was always on at home, so you pick up a lot from that. And as the daughter of an African man who came here for socioeconomic reasons, I saw that we don’t all have the same opportunities. This awareness developed at an early age.’ She was around 16 when she decided she wanted to go into European politics. ‘At the time, I often went to Brussels with my mum. She took me to all the buildings. I became a stronger believer in the power of Europe. You can achieve so much more if you work together and learn from and encourage one another.’
While her mother planted the seeds of her political career, she knew that a Public Administration degree would be a stepping-stone toward it. Her aunt had studied Law in Leiden, and this inspired her to study there too. ‘I came from a university of applied sciences and was nervous about making the switch. Obviously I wanted to prove myself, and I succeeded too, which gave me a real boost. So much of a boost, in fact, that I didn’t shy away from showing my critical nature. I am grateful that professors and lecturers responded by taking the time for their students after classes. Ultimately, my critical nature evolved into critical reasoning. I still benefit from this now.’
Typical student life?
Rafaela carried on living in Uitgeest during her studies, so didn’t experience typical student life. ‘You would be most likely to find me in the Pieter de la Court Building – not much has changed in that respect – and I sometimes went for a drink in the pretty town centre with friends. I still meet them there now. I mainly did things with two young women who, like me, came from a university of applied sciences. We began by doing assignments together but later sought one another’s company for more personal things too. We had much in common and learnt from one another’s experiences. Sometimes this simply meant helping with practical things like finding part-time work. It was only later that I became aware of what this relationship meant to me. When I look back, I realise that although studying is about your personal efforts and performance, it is anything but a solo enterprise. The individual and connections go hand in hand – within a small group of friends but also as part of the University with all its students and staff.’
Text: Fred Hermsen
Photo: Frank Ruiter
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Leidraad is the free magazine for alumni of Leiden University. You can also read the full magazine online [in Dutch].