Melika Belhaj joined the CMENAS community in Fall 2021 as the Communications Assistant for our bi-annual newsletters. Kristin and Rima had the opportunity to spend some time with her and get to know her better.

Kristin Waterbury/Rima Hassouneh: What program and degree are you working to obtain at U-M?

Melika Belhaj: I am currently pursuing a Master of Urban and Regional Planning at Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning.

KW/RH: What brought you to U-M and this particular program/area of study?

MB: I returned to Michigan in 2017 after living in the Pacific Northwest (Portland, OR and rural Washington) for nearly a decade. Ann Arbor is my hometown and it was important to me to be closer to my family here and my extended family in Morocco.

For the last three years, I worked professionally for the Ann Arbor YMCA. This experience combined with my background in social services in Portland, OR and my education in Community Development inspired me to pursue a master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning.

KW/RH: What is the greatest piece of advice you have ever received? 

MB: One of my mentors, Dr. Cornel Pewewardy, has taught me a lot about how to thrive as a person of culture in academia and in the workplace. Namely to consider all that I do as “heart-work”–to lead from the heart and to have integrity and strength in my purpose. 

KW/RH: What is the most adventurous thing you’ve ever done?

MB: I moved to rural Spain when I was seventeen years old to work in agriculture. I ended up spending the year working in ancient olive groves in Andalusia and traveling across Spain and visiting my family in Morocco–an experience I will always hold close to my heart.

KW/RH: What is your guilty pleasure?

MB: A 5c and maple donut from Dimo’s. I’m also a big fan of Outlander. To be honest, I don’t feel guilty about either–mostly just pleasure!

KW/RH: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

MB: I idolized Lisa Leslie and wanted to play professional basketball for the LA Sparks. I was sports-obsessed as a child–I had a Michael Vick poster in my room and my brother and I had a massive collection of the 1980s and 90s basketball cards. I’m unsure as to where the poster went, but I still collect basketball cards and read sports history books whenever I can. A recent favorite is Coach John Thompson’s autobiography, I Came as a Shadow, which was released posthumously in 2020. Sports are an inroad to the complicated truths of American culture. I still shoot hoops.

KW/RH: What is your favorite or most desired vacation destination in the Middle East and/or North Africa?

MB: My father’s home country, Morocco. I love being there with my family and with my in-laws. I sometimes dream about the taste of my auntie’s djej emshermel which she makes with chicken necks the way her mother did. I can close my eyes and walk through Rabat’s old city and smell msemen and briwats and chebbakia. I cook these foods to bring me “home.” Someday I would love to visit Sudan with my sister-friend, Ananas, whose father is from Khartoum.

KW/RH: Tell us about your first job.

MB: My first job was working for the wonderful Sylvia Nolasco-Rivers, who owns and operates the beloved Ann Arbor restaurant Pilar’s Tamales. I met Sylvia at the farmer’s market and asked her if I could help her in the kitchen. I worked with her when I was a high school student and she and her mother honored me with the privilege of learning how to make pupusas. Food traditions are sacred and their kitchen always felt like a spiritual sanctuary to me. She used to have a food cart in the Diag and a post at the market–I loved working outside and sharing her beautiful food with people. Sylvia is still a mentor to me, my tía, and forever changed the ways I think about how work and love can and must be connected.

KW/RH: Who is your biggest hero/inspiration?

MB: The Klickitat River in southern Washington–one of the only undammed rivers in the region. This river is home to beautiful and sacred salmon spawning grounds and ancestral/contemporary dip-net fishing sites for the original people of that region. It is also a nesting area for bald eagles in the winter season. I lived at the mouth of the river where it meets N’Chiwana, the Columbia River, for a few years and one of my mentors, Hereditary Chief Wilbur Slockish Jr., taught me a lot about the resilience and power of the water during that time.

KW/RH: What is your favorite hobby?

MB: I love to be outside and take long walks. My favorite place in Southeast Michigan is the Potawatomi trail that winds around Pickerel, Crooked, and Silver Lakes. It is beautiful in all seasons and reminds me of what is most important in sustaining our lives: water, air, and light. I also love to cook, bake, and read. I’m currently reading–and thoroughly enjoying–Nafia Mohamed’s book The Fortune Men which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2021.