Ode to Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International
Robin Fasano | December 2011 Issue
On a bright morning in Baghdad, Iraq, teacups clank as 20 women in head scarves sit in a circle on a carpeted floor inside a small, white building. They are intently discussing daily life in their conflict-ridden country. Everyone nods in agreement that safety and jobs are of utmost importance. This site of the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit Women for Women International works to provide both. Zainab Salbi, a native of Iraq who grew up under former President Saddam Hussein’s regime and came to the U.S. at 19, founded Women for Women International 18 years ago at age 23 after learning of the atrocities perpetrated against women during the Bosnian war. “I could not stand aside and do nothing. I had to act,” she says. “I believe the way to stop violence against women is to speak out and refuse to be silent.” Salbi initially raised funds through an area church to go to Bosnia, where she heard women’s experiences firsthand.
With the mission of helping women in war-torn regions rebuild their lives, the organization works in nine countries, including Iraq, Bosnia, Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The group offers microcredit loans, job skills training and human-rights advocacy. It also connects local women with sponsors abroad who keep in touch via letters. Since its inception, the non-profit has helped 300,000 women gain access to financial and social support and has distributed $95 million in direct aid and loans. In addition, Salbi has been honored with a Conrad N. Hilton humanitarian award and has written two books, a memoir of growing up in Iraq as the daughter of Hussein’s personal pilot and a collection of women’s accounts from war zones.
She credits her mother for spurring her interest in social justice. Since childhood, her mother had encouraged her to read books about women’s rights, relayed women’s stories and instilled in her the importance of being independent and using her voice. Salbi, in turn, strives to help others speak out. “One person can make a positive difference by sharing her truth,” she says. Her truth: “Women are the glue of families and societies; when women thrive, countries thrive.” The inspiration to continue her work comes from women all over the world Salbi meets in her travels. “I’ve learned so much from their strength… they’ve taught me about courage, hope and resilience.”