Campus News

Mame Salim’s continuing journey of empowerment

By CHARLES ANZALONE

Published May 1, 2019

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“I’m breaking barriers and obstacles because I didn’t get married at a young age. Marriage wasn’t really something I was interested in, not at that young age. ”
Mame Salim, UB senior

Editor’s note: UBNow continues its series of profiles on UB students already making a difference in their professions. These profiles are intended to show the breadth and scope of the university’s new breed of leaders.

When Mame Salim was 6 and her family was living in Buffalo after immigrating from Kenya a few months earlier, a woman from Journey’s End Refugee Services came to her home on Buffalo’s West Side to help her learn English.

Every time Salim would do well, the woman gave her those tiny Goldfish crackers.

She can’t remember her name, but Salim learned quickly with her. Salim had a handful of personal tutors, but this was the woman who made the biggest impression. Twice a week. Reading to her one-on-one. Salim learned more English with this woman than anyone else, and by the time she was in second grade, she was fluent in English.

“Whenever I see those Goldfish crackers, I always think of her,” Salim says. “That’s how I remember her.”

In the lineup of UB’s new generation of leaders, Salim must be counted in the front row. She’s a grassroots kind of leader, born in a refugee camp in Kenya, someone poised to change the increasingly global world a little at a time. She’s someone who has already reached out to the populations most in need.

“Mame is someone who always thinks about what she can do to make a difference in this world, and she is driven to use her exceptional talents and abilities to do so,” says Keith Griffler, associate professor in the Department of Transnational Studies, who Salim says is one of the UB professors who knows her well.

“Mame impresses me with her passion to play a role in the betterment of society and her compassion for others. I expect to hear great things about her over the years as she helps her generation tackle the difficult challenges they have inherited and work to leave the world a better place than they found it.”

A leader in her community

Salim is already a leader for her neighborhood. When she was in fourth grade, her family moved to South Buffalo, where she lives now, but she maintains a strong tie to the girls in her old neighborhood when her family lived on Grant Street and Bird Avenue.

She wouldn’t say she’s a leader for other university students, although others would disagree. But Salim does recognize her influence for those African refugees in her Somali Bantu community and their children trying to make new lives for themselves in Buffalo.

“For my community, even though we are in America now, we still have our customs and beliefs,” says Salim, a senior majoring in psychology and Italian. “One of the things is for girls, you get married at a young age. Like 15. A lot of them don’t end up going to high school. And I was one of the few girls in the community to actually go to high school, or college.

“I’m breaking barriers and obstacles because I didn’t get married at a young age,” she says. “Marriage wasn’t really something I was interested in, not at that young age.”

Salim’s father, born in Somalia but who Salim considers Kenyan, now works as a teacher assistant in Buffalo P.S. School 30, the Frank A. Sedita Academy. He used to hold English classes for Salim and her neighborhood friends. Her mother is Somalian, and still works in housekeeping, a job she has done for many years.

Her parents encouraged her to pursue higher education. Salim is set to graduate this spring. Her parents felt strongly about her becoming a doctor. It took a while, Salim says, but now they accept her goal of working toward a master’s degree in clinical and school social work. Still, no matter what she studies, her life path speaks loudly to those who see her as an example.

Taking a different path

“A lot of those girls, I just feel bad for them because, honestly, it’s a cultural thing,” Salim says. “You get pressure from the community. Every time I go to the community, it’s like ‘Oh, what are you doing? Are you married?’ It’s the first question you get as a female. ‘Are you married?’

“I noticed with a lot of girls, instead of getting married right out of middle school, a lot of them are finishing high school, and then getting married. OK, we’re making progress. That’s better.”

Salim has a steady stream of faculty sponsors. Maureen Jameson, associate professor of French and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, met her when she took RLL 496, “Tutoring Language and Narrative in Immigrant Communities,” an experiential learning course Jameson developed and teaches.

If there ever was a young leader for today’s multicultural, global age, Jameson says, it’s Salim.

“It occurred to me to point out that Mame really does have—and this is so rare—a complete grasp from the inside of what it is to be African, and of what it is to be African-American,” says Jameson.

“Layered on top of that is her experience in Italy (Salim last year volunteered to teach English at a summer camp in Solaro, Italy), where she saw how Italians live, but also how non-Italians live in Italy. And layered still on top of that, she is a hijab-wearing Muslim woman in a country now dominated by anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment.”

A ‘breadth of perspective’

Jameson says she’s also impressed by Salim’s “breadth of her perspective.”

“She speaks a couple of African languages, as I recall, and remembers a fair amount from her childhood.

“On the other hand, she came to the U.S. early enough that she has no trace of an accent, and is fully conversant with the good and not-so-good aspects of her adopted country.

“She has seen and been through so much that she can really lay waste to some of our deluded notions. She isn't negative—on the contrary, the first thing you’ll see is a great smile and cordial personality.”

Salim’s ease and gift for accepting and understanding different cultures were on display when she spent the summer teaching English in Solara, according to Laura Chiesa, associate professor of Italian. Chiesa has particular respect for Salim’s ability to assimilate into another culture and relate to those different from herself.

“I really admire her,” says Chiesa, who praises Salim’s “sense of justice and multicultural awareness, and her ability to elaborate ideas in the humanities,” adding she is proud Italian is one of Salim’s majors.

“She has the ability to relate to other people,” says Chiesa. “She is able to foster her interest in seeing how the world is not one culture. Then she is able to navigate through the differences and to embrace others.

“She is an exceptionally promising young adult for the 21st century,” Chiesa says. “And I am looking forward to hearing more about her professional life in the time to come.”

Powerful childhood memories

Salim’s memories of childhood are spare but powerful. She remembers walking uphill on a deserted street at a very young age and seeing men with guns coming the other way. Somehow she was alone, she says, when she saw the armed men approaching. A woman she had never seen before came out in the road and pulled Salim into her house.

She also remembers Turkanas (an ethnic group in Ethiopia) coming to her side of the refugee camp and stealing livestock. When her people would see them coming, they would try to hold off the Turkanas by throwing rocks.

The dangerous and menacing memories of those first six years of life continue. Salim doesn’t pinpoint her exact age (she had to be younger than 6), but remembers walking with another young girl in Kenya. The two girls didn’t realize they were nearing a cliff. Salim’s friend fell off the cliff and died.

Another time, she remembers men breaking into her tent in the refugee camp and stealing all the family’s possessions.

“We had to pretend we were sleeping so they wouldn’t kill us,” she says.

Affable, but assertive

Despite this, Jameson’s observation about Salim being anything but negative and bitter is evident to anyone the young woman meets. Salim admits she comes across as easygoing and warm. But accompanying this affable presence is a steel resolve and more than a willingness to stand up for herself and what she advocates.

Salim says people meet her and think she is a “pushover.” Then they see her assertive side and go “whoa!”

“People are always surprised by my assertiveness,” she says.

Salim accepts an offer to end this story the way she wants. Is there something to say that would give closure to what she is trying to accomplish so far? Instead of her own words, Salim chooses a quotation from Malcolm X.

“Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”