Sanika Salim is a Bangladeshi American that fights for women and children’s rights in her job as a Coordinator in UNICEF USA. She is very strong at going for what she wants and getting it, and she encourages everyone to do the same.
I was about a year and a half old when we moved to New York but then we went back to Bangladesh. So when I came back to Delaware, I was about 11 or 12 years old and we’ve been living in Delaware since then. I think the first year when I started school in Delaware was terrifying, I really didnt know how to act. I remember I went home to my parents and I was like, “I dont like this school, there’s no one here who looks like me”. Because of the lack of diversity, no one knew where Bangladesh was or about Bengali culture. So when people would ask me, “where I’m from”, I would say I just moved here from Bangladesh, and they are like “What’s that or where is that?” I would say “I’m Bengali”, they wouldn’t understand it. As an 11 or 12-year-old kid, when you are just trying to fit in, you also get frustrated and you dont know how to explain it. So to make it easier for myself, I would say, “just pretend I’m from India”, and I would say that just to make my life easier. I would never do that now, I would actually take my time to explain to people. I think that was probably the hardest part, the first few years when you had to explain to people where you moved from, that it was an actual country.
Also, as I said, it was also right after 9/11, and there was some hesitancy. I think when I got to fourth or fifth grade, I remember one of my peers asked me, “Oh Salim, isn’t that a Muslim last name” and it took me thirty seconds to respond because my immediate instinct was to say, “Yeah it is” but then I paused a little, and thought, “Should I say it is, why is he asking me that question?”. But it was just an innocent question from my peers, there was just a lot to transition into after we moved back.
I would say that all throughout high school and in college, I was lucky enough or privileged enough to have teachers that were very supportive. So whether it was my freshman year, sophomore, junior, or senior year, every year I had a teacher that I could go to. I think freshman year, it was my English teacher, all four years of high school, we had the same math teacher, we had great counselors too. I think in that sense, I was very lucky if I had any problems, whether it was at home, whether it was at school, I always had someone to go to, to discuss those problems.
I wanted to be a part of the Muslim Students Association because I come from a Muslim family, I wanted to be a part of those traditions on campus, like host Ramadan dinners. As I said, when I moved to Delaware, it was right after 9/11, and I saw the hesitancy my parents had to outright tell people that they were Muslim, and even some of my friends. I’ve had friends after 9/11 who intentionally wore the Hijab, just to make that statement that “Yes, I am Muslim, I’m still an American, what are you going to do about it?” But then I also had friends who took off the hijab because they were so afraid that they are going to be attacked. So when I got to college and I found out about the Muslim American Association, I joined because I think they did some great work about raising awareness about not just the religion but the culture itself, and just Muslim people around the world.
I actually moved to DC immediately right after college. When I was at the University of Delaware, I spent my last semester at DC, I was interning on the Hill, at the Homeland Security and Government Affairs committee, for my senator, Senator Tom Carper of Delaware. By the time I was graduating, they had a position open for his personal office, for a staff assistant, and I started working there immediately. So I moved back to Delaware for graduation and a week later, I moved back to DC to start my job, I worked on the Hill for about three and a half years, and now I work for UNICEF USA.
I think one of the biggest challenges of working on The Hill, is that you work for a person, and you obviously work for a political figure, you work for a member of congress. This is one of the things I realized as I was leaving the hill, was that my personal philosophy is that I would like to work for the issues and not for the person. So that was one of my biggest challenges on working on The Hill, I had political ideas and views that didnt 100% align with not just the member that I was working with but a lot of members that were working on The Hill. So if there were certain legislature that I supported or certain legislature that I wanted to push, you always had to take into account that because you are working for the member, and they are working for their constituency, that there is a certain political agenda that they had to adhere to.
So I worked on the hill for about three and a half years, after the hill, I started working for UNICEF USA, September of 2019, and I am still working there. Currently, I am the Community Engagement Associate for the Mid-Atlantic region, so I oversee the work of DC, Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, and West Virginia. And like I said, I am the Community Engagement Associate, my job is to build relationships with external partners, with non-profits in the area, with organizations, so that we can collaborate on some of the campaigns that are very important to us, some of the issues that are very important to UNICEF, such as early childhood education, ending child marriages. I am happy in my job like I said, I have a philosophy that you should work for the issues and not the person. I think I finally have a job that I am working for the issues, I am advocating for the rights of women and children. I dont have to worry about politics, as a non-partisan organization, we dont care whether you are a democrat or a republican or an independent. If I want to work on an issue, and I can prove that it’s affecting a child negatively, or I am fighting for children’s rights, I can work on that issue, and I can take up that project, and I think that’s absolutely incredible. I think that it says a lot when you can say that you love your job and that you are happy with what you do.