Posted by Guest on June 12, 2017 in Blog

Zainab_Salbi.jpgBy Haley Arata

“You must be independent. You must be strong. You must not let anyone touch you or talk to you in the wrong way.” These are the words that Zainab Salbi’s mother told her while growing up in Sadam Hussein’s Iraq. And these are the words that remained with Salbi when she grew up to become one of the most fearless and influential humanitarians in the world. 

Salbi is the founder of Women for Women International, a grassroots development and humanitarian organization that assists women survivors of war which was recognized with the Award for International Achievement at AAIF’s 2006 Kahlil Gibran Gala. Salbi served as CEO of Women for Women International for almost twenty years, authored three books, hosted television shows, and has been recognized for her work in countless ways. To say Salbi is influential would be an understatement. Her drive towards humanitarian work is political, but also very personal. 

Salbi was born in Baghdad, Iraq. From a young age, Salbi was very conscious of the world around her. Everything changed for Salbi during the Iraq-Iran War. Not only did Salbi learn about the fragility of life, but she also learned that her parents knew Sadam Hussein. Her father was Hussein’s personal pilot, and their family had a social relationship with Hussein. He was the man she called ‘Uncle;’ he both offered them his weekend beach house and instilled fear in the lives of families across the country, including her own. Salbi’s memoir, “Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam,” recounts what it was like living within Saddam’s circle. She remembers, “Saddam ordered our fathers, they ordered our mothers, and their daughters ordered us. They were all Saddam.” Salbi knew to be afraid. 

Zainab_Salbi(2).pngIn 1990, Salbi’s parents sent her to Chicago. Her parents arranged for her to marry an Iraqi immigrant to get her out of Iraq and to safety. At least, presumed safety. At 19 years old, Salbi was raped by her husband. She remembered the words of her mother: you must be strong. A resilient survivor, Salbi immediately left her husband.

After moving to Washington, D.C, Salbi worked her way through college. She graduated from George Mason University with a Bachelor of Individualized Study degree in sociology and women’s studies, and then earned a master’s degree in development studies from the London School of Economics. 

In 1993 Salbi was living in the United States. During this time, Salbi learned about wartime rape camps in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. After first reading about survivors of these camps in a Newsweek article, Salbi followed the plight of these women in the news and became increasingly invested in their survival.

Salbi wanted to help, but could not find an organization that directly aided women survivors of war. So, she traveled to war-torn Bosnia. There, Salbi spoke with women affected by ethnic cleansing. Many had lost their families, been detained and sexually assaulted. Salbi knew she had to act, so she gathered funds to provide aid, education, and support to these survivors. From this initial aid package, Women for Women International was born. 

11315782005_5288521c72_b.jpgSalbi describes Women for Women International as a training program that aims to build women’s confidence and self-esteem and to remind women of their inherent value. From training about 30 women in Bosnia in 1993, Women for Women International grew over the following decades to work with over 462,000 women in 8 conflict areas. And the ripple effect of this support is absolute, as those women then carry their communities forward towards social and political prosperity. 

Salbi’s accomplishments and recognitions are numerous: she was a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show many times, she was a part of the NYT Women in the World series, she founded the Zainab Salbi Project to explore gender and sexuality in societies worldwide and the Nidaa Show that highlights the ordinary, heroic, and ordinarily heroic lives of Arab women. The list goes on and on. Yet, it is clear that Salbi is not an activist for the recognition or for the fame. She does it for the people, for the women, for those kept from supporting themselves. And in the process, she finds her own support: “I was taking myself to the very same circumstances I came out of: war,” she said. “I was giving my mother’s speeches to the women I was trying to help…and having conversations with them eventually led to my own healing.”

Read more stories about Arab immigrants and their descendants on the "Together We Came" main page.


Haley Arata is a Summer 2017 Intern at the Arab American Institute.