An Interview with Zainab Salbi

When Zainab Salbi started Women for Women International, an organization that provides women survivors of war and other conflicts with tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency, she was 23 years old. She had left her entire family behind in Iraq only a few years before, bringing with her to America only $400. 16 years later, her organization has raised almost 80 million dollars, helped over 200,000 women and impacted over a million children’s lives.

Salbi’s own experience with the Iran-Iraq war inspired her to help all women dealing with the aftermath of war, in order to achieve the greater goal of promoting viable civil societies worldwide, changing the world one woman at a time. And truly, her experience with war affected her not only in her life’s work, in her beliefs. “I don’t see only the beauty of the world,” Salbi admitted, “I also see the awful, ugliness of it in a parallel way to the beauty. I think I appreciate beauty because I know what the flip side of it is. I grew up in - and still live in a world- where bombs and machine guns and tanks and all of that exist and where death is so much a part of life. And so that’s how it shaped me very much as it’s always in the back of my head, it’s always seeing that pain and being aware of it and in a way it makes me appreciate the joy and the beauty so much more because I know it doesn’t always exist.”

Salbi’s experience with war also opened her eyes to the plight of women, and their resulting social standing, as a result of strife. “The world treats women so unfairly,” she asserted. “The fact that they are narrowed to simply being victims – I see women in their amazing beauty and resilience and amazing way that I only wish the world could see half of, not even all of it.” But despite the resilience of women, there are still major obstacles to recovery. Salbi outlined the stages of surviving war, pointing to the obvious stage of “survival mode” – or needing basic necessities like water, food, jobs and clothing. But the survival process does not end here; rather, it continues for years, and can be destructive if not addressed.

“In the second stage, you need acknowledgement,” Salbi explains. “You need to acknowledge what you’ve gone through, you need someone who understands what you’ve witnessed. Not necessarily to say sorry, not necessarily to feel bad as much as you really just need a witness. This happened to me. And in that stage it’s much more on the emotional and intellectual level, and it can happen years after the war.” And while women, and all survivors of war, must realize this stage, Salbi notes, there is a stage that dominantly affects women – a stage including increased domestic violence, alcoholism, diseases and illness, and depression and suicide. It’s this stage that her organization aims to address through providing a support system.

Unfortunately, working with survivors and helping them to rebuild their lives has not been as easy as getting on a plane and moving into a foreign village. Salbi has faced opposition repeatedly from leaders of the countries she visits – on a national and local level. National government, Salbi explains, often oppose her attempts to help the poorest factions – those who are most devastatingly affected. “They [the national government] find it hard to focus on the most excluded marginalized people,” she notes. And even when the national government submits, local leaders of smaller communities often feel that by helping women, Salbi will jeopardize the patriarchal system instilled in the community. However, Salbi often succeeds, as “more often than not we get husbands or men in leadership positions who turn 360 degrees and say ‘okay, you’re right and we apologize we didn’t realize how happy the women in our lives are or how wonderful it is to see them independent and strong and smiling and getting their own jobs.’”

But Salbi’s struggles are not solely restricted to her experience on the job. Inevitably, when dealing with such emotional and difficult, though rewarding, work, Salbi questions her own life. “It’s always disorienting at the beginning for me, it always takes me a while to adjust to the different lives I just witnessed and live in one of them at a time. But the whole point is to bring joy and to feel joy and share joy and not be melodramatic or sad about what women have gone through. As much as one should acknowledge the pain they should acknowledge the joy and share it with everyone else,” she says. When asked about how she deals with the dual reality of living in a first world country while working with the most poverty-stricken people of third world countries, Salbi says she uses the difference as determination. “It’s okay that I enjoy this reality here, that I have water here and don’t have to carry the gallons of water through 115 degrees for a couple of hours. Just because I have it and I’m not living there doesn’t mean I have to torture myself,” she says. “But it makes me much more determined to say how I can share this access with others, how I can share this life with others. And so it makes me, if anything, much more determined and passionate about the work that I do and about sharing resources and privileges with others.”

Though Salbi herself is an example of the power of young women, she still looks to our generation with respect, and even indicates that we are a large part of her organization’s success. “I’m inspired by the power of young women and girls. What’s holding us is not the big major donor who is giving us $20,00 – it’s equally the girl who created a run in her high school to raise $10,000 to help I don’t know how many women, or the young women who are participating in the Run for Congo or a book club that collected money. It’s these grassroots efforts from everyone who people would say ‘they can’t help they’re teenagers.’ They’re the ones who are saving the day in this particular moment, who are saying we’re going to stand up and we’re not going to forget those women and girls in other parts of the world.” And she has advice for us, too. “It’s so easy for us to be busy with our daily lives, but we cannot forget about the injustice that is happening against women and girls in other parts of the world, because if we do, it will haunt us. It will come back one day in a direct or indirect way. I really don’t believe that this world can be a better place and can be safe and stable if women and girls do not have an equal share and equal participation in all decision making. And I cannot see how we can go about building a more stable world if we don’t have full inclusion of women and men, boys and girls in every single position and in every single thing we do.”

More articles by Category: Feminism, Gender-based violence, Girls, International, Violence against women
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Women's leadership, Gender bias, Domestic violence, Middle East and North Africa, Civil rights



Julie Zeilinger
Founding Editor of The WMC FBomb
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