Van Salih was born and raised in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. She graduated from the University of Sulaimaniyah, Iraq with a degree in architectural engineering. After graduation, she joined the restoration project carried out by UNESCO at Erbil Citadel in the Kurdistan Region, where she discovered that the conservative social norms regarding women had a profound influence on the urban design and architectural elements of Erbil Citadel. After finishing the restoration project, Van joined ExxonMobil Kurdistan Region of Iraq as the contributions and communications supervisor to lead the company’s signature programs devoted to improving the socioeconomic conditions of the host communities. At Yale, Van focused on the geopolitics of the Gulf countries, foreign relations, oil, and culture, gender studies, and global development—particularly programs designed to promote education for women in the Middle East.