Breaking down the barriers

Shoheli Sunjida is an inspiring woman who is helping to make a change in Cardinia. Pic: GABRIELLA PAYNE

Ever since she was a young girl, Shoheli Sunjida has been fighting the good fight and leading the way for many as a passionate community advocate. Full of strength and resilience, Ms Sunjida has experienced a lot throughout her life, and is working hard to empower migrant women to find their voices, as she has. GABRIELLA PAYNE sat down for a chat with Ms Sunjida, to learn more about her own inspirations and ideas for the future.

Shoheli Sunjida has that special spark about her that captivates your attention and lights up any room.

Driven and ambitious, Ms Sunjida has a twinkle in her eye, a mind bursting with ideas and when she speaks, you can’t help but feel inspired and empowered to make a change.

Growing up in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Ms Sunjida said that from a young age, she realised she was different to the other girls around her – not wanting to conform to the mainstream ideals in Bangladeshi culture.

“From a very early age, I was actually standing up for myself,” Ms Sunjida said.

“I was always told that ‘you are a girl, you can’t do this and you can’t do that’ and soon I realised that I’m not just a girl, I’m a human being.

So if a boy can do anything, I can do anything as well.”

Being a sporty and outgoing youngster, Ms Sunjida said she was always being told off by adults in the community as she loved to play cricket and soccer with the boys, something that was “completely forbidden” in her home country – but she never let that stop her.

“That’s just how society is back in those countries,” she explained.

“Because I was going outside the box, they didn’t want to accept it – and that’s when I realised that I had to start fighting with people.”

Ms Sunjida began to turn her focus to how she could help her community, and empower other girls and women to take a stance and not just accept these outdated ideals.

“I’ve always been trying to go beyond my capacity to help people and I would always get backlash, but I never stopped,” she said.

A talented and dedicated student, Ms Sunjida won many awards for her academic work and public speaking presentations, and went on to receive a scholarship to study chartered accountancy.

She then completed her masters in accountancy at the Bangladesh National University, got married at the age of 21 and gave birth to her first son, all before immigrating to Australia in her early twenties.

“I was 22 when I came to Australia,” Ms Sunjida said.

Despite facing discrimination as a young immigrant family, Ms Sunjida said that she immediately saw “the beauty of Australia”, which to her was the sheer diversity apparent in her new neighbourhood in Cardinia.

Being amongst one of the “first migrant families” to move into Officer, back in 2002, Ms Sunjida said that she and her husband experienced a lot of prejudice and challenges in their new community, especially being muslims – but that never stopped them from trying to break down these barriers and make connections in the community.

“People can be very judgemental,” she said.

“I always take the first step to greet people and shake their hands, and if somebody doesn’t do that to me, I will still do it.

My point is that to diminish these barriers, somebody has to take that step.

If you don’t do that, and I don’t do that, then we are just judgemental and will come to our own conclusions – and that only heightens that barrier.”

As Ms Sunjida, her husband and their two young boys became settled in their new home, she continued to go above and beyond the societal norms for an Asian woman, deciding to set a good example for her kids by finding a job at Crown casino, where she worked hard over the space of ten years.

Throughout this time though, Ms Sunjida was constantly involved in community projects and organisations – and after finding her voice and establishing herself in the community, she decided to run for the council election in 2016.

Although she was defeated, Ms Sunjida said it was a fantastic learning experience for her, and made her realise that her true passion was community advocacy.

“When I didn’t win, I took it in my stride,” she said.

“I decided to quit my job and started volunteering with all the community organisations and community houses that I could, because I realised that I need to know them; I need to listen and learn from them in order to help them.”

Over the years, Ms Sunjida has been involved with organisations including the Emerald Community House, the Pakenham Living & Learning Centre, the Beaconsfield Neighbourhood Centre, the Cardinia Interfaith Network and the Pakenham Cub Scouts to name a few, and even started her own not-for-profit, Dream Harmony.

In 2020, Ms Sunjida again ran in the Cardinia Shire Council election, but received a lot of backlash online for a few “miscommunications”, leading to another narrow defeat – but this hasn’t gotten her down.

“I am very passionate, and I am always optimistic,” she said.

“Some people thought that I was doing these things [volunteering] just to get elected – but I really wanted to see change.”

Whilst Ms Sunjida said she has no plans of running for council again, she is instead hoping to encourage multicultural youth to put their name in the ring.

“If we want to see a peaceful world, we need to work with youth, because they are the future leaders and they are going to be running this world.

To me, religion and country [of origin] is nothing.

It’s people who make the religion or country – and we are all human beings.”

Ms Sunjida is still working hard, now as a driving instructor and the owner of a new small business called ‘House of Burgers’ in Berwick, and is still volunteering with many local organisations and advocating for equality throughout Cardinia.

Not only that, Ms Sunjida is the president of the Officer & District Residents and Ratepayers Association and is continuing to encourage other migrant women to take a stance and let their voices be heard.

It is clear that her drive and determination are strengths that will stay with her for life, and Ms Sunjida said that if there was one thing she hoped to help change in Cardinia, it would be to see more understanding and equality between all the many cultures that make up our diverse community.

“I always believe that God has given us something to make us unique and special, so who are we to judge anybody?

Respect people the way you want to be respected, that’s the most important thing,” she said.