When asked how she likes to spend her free time, Safia Mahjebin paused before laughing at the thought. As a citywide community coordinator at the New York City Mayor’s office, she works daily to fight domestic and gender-based violence, but her passion for change doesn’t end when her workday does.
“I guess I just have a strong sense of justice,” she said while discussing the intersectional change she hopes to see and be a part of during the era of COVID-19, Black Lives Matter and countless other issues that demand reform. Mahjebin’s laughter was only an indication that her pursuit of justice is present in all aspects of her life — on and off the clock.
During her years at Hunter College, Mahjebin was a Roosevelt scholar with a major in philosophy and was in the school’s Chinese Flagship program for about a year. It was through her other ventures that Mahjebin first found herself addressing child and forced marriage and violence against women and girls. As a legal intern with Sanctuary for Families, Mahjebin’s life and career took a new path that she would have never expected.
Through her internship, Mahjebin became part of a movement fighting to raise the legal age of marriage higher than 14 in the state of New York. She didn’t immediately notice that the situations she was studying reflected experiences in her own life. “When I was researching it I realized that child marriage was something that was practiced in my community and was something that my parents tried to do to me,” she said, reflecting on how her parents had tried to force her to marry at 19. After her internship ended, she was asked back by her supervisor to testify about her experience at a press conference in Albany. She ended up doing other media appearances and panels on the topic, all during her time at Hunter.
Personal stories like Mahjebin’s and child and forced marriage survivors helped persuade lawmakers to raise the legal age of marriage in New York to 17 in 2017. And while this was not as high as she and her colleagues had hoped, it was still a great victory. “It took a huge mental and emotional toll,” she said of the experience, proud that she was able to do that and still get her degree.
This experience inspired her to create her own organization in her sophomore year at Hunter, a workshop series titled Right to Say NO!, which aimed to spiritually empower young Bangladeshi and Muslim women and girls to rally against abusive situations. Now, as a citywide community coordinator at the Mayor’s Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence, Mahjebin uses her past experiences as fuel for what she hopes to accomplish in the coming years.
After moving back to New York following a post-graduation summer working with the Tahirih Justice Center’s forced marriage task force in Washington, D.C., Mahjebin landed her job at the mayor’s office this past January. She would have never thought that two months later she would be working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, she hopes that she can be a proponent of the change New York needs during these difficult times.
“When I applied, I made it an intention of mine that when I work in this outreach capacity as a community coordinator I wanted to make sure that my community and the people who I know need to hear about this the most know about it,” she said. “In whatever capacity I can be like a bridge between government and New York City resources and community, I wanted to play that role.”
Mahjebin has been successful in taking those steps, now using her voice and platform to help uplift non-English speakers and people within her own community. As a speaker of Bangla, she hosted her agency’s first town hall meeting in a non-English language, where she spoke about the resources the agency offers to communities within the city. During the pandemic, she has been working to create videos in multiple languages to raise awareness on gender based-violence and the resources her department provides for those in need. “I’m trying to revive some Mandarin that I learned through Flagship,” she said about the scripts she’s been writing for these videos and her brief stint in the foreign language program at Hunter.
Mahjebin trusts that she and her colleagues can also be big proponents of social change for moments such as 2020’s resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the same breath, she recognized that her own department needed to determine what it could do to further positive change for all vulnerable communities. “When these protests were happening there were conversations being had on the intersections between gender-based violence, domestic violence and racial justice. I felt like we weren’t doing enough,” she said. Since this realization, Mahjebin has been proposing ideas within her department and working on her own time to do what she can to make sure more is done for racial justice.
She emphasized the power of people supporting the causes important to them and their communities and demanding change and reform, no matter how discouraging public leaders may be. She hopes that current students at Hunter can recognize the knowledge they have through lived experiences and see how those real experiences can influence real change.
“If someone tells you you don’t know and makes you feel stupid just because they have academic jargon over you and they can spit some data points, that does not mean that what you know from your firsthand experiences and your actual life is no longer valid,” Mahjebin said. “One thing that Hunter’s student body definitely has is a wealth of experience and diversity in experiences. It’s not just about a bunch of different colors or nationalities — we are living the real lives of New York City. ”
This article is part of The Envoy’s Success Stories series, in which our journalists profile recent Hunter graduates, focusing on their careers.