“In her Family, in her Heart, fear was a constant as the Desert Sun”

Zainab Salbi is an Iraqi-American humanitarian, entrepreneur, author and media commentator who has dedicated herself to women’s rights and freedom.  At just the age of 23, she founded Women for Women International—a grassroots humanitarian and development organisation dedicated to serving women survivors of war.

Zainab has this to say about the anger women internalise and why her organisation works so relentlessly to help women at grassroot levels to heal their souls and give them back their dignity…”Its hard not to be angry when you have witnessed the rape of your mother in front of your eyes, the killing of your child, the burning of your home, or the pillaging of all that you worked so hard to build.  The question for survivors is never their anger at injustice, but rather how to express that anger in a healthy way that can lead to building rather than destruction, to reconciliation rather than hate, to a profound perspective that marries both the beauty and the ugliness of life.”

Zainab Salbi knows first hand what it is like to live in fear, to live in war and be under the control of a demonic dictatorship.  She grew up in Iraq under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.  Fear was the dominant emotion in a country where you could go to jail for just making a joke about Saddam Hussein.

The power of women was severely restricted.  In the 70’s Zainab remembers her mother had women over once a month and they would laugh and dance and chat.  By the 80’s their voices were muted.  Now when the women gathered there were tears and talk of the injustices, voices silenced, dulled to just a mere whisper.

None of us can imagine the horrors of living in war torn countries.  A while ago I came across a poem by Chitra Divakaruni in her book Black Candle that captures the lost voices of women whose power has been taken away. The poem is called “Living Underground”

“The sky was a rusted lid

at the end of the tunneled night

we learned to read

by the light of bones.

In our dreams the trees

drew in their branches,

shrank their seeds.  The air

was the thin color

of smoke, frayed wings.

We pressed our ears

to the ceiling, listening

for sounds dragged off

like heavy sacks.

Each day we asked each other,

are the clouds studded

with the diamond eyes of bats?

Are the dogs calling our names?

Her passion to help women was born during these times which was wrought with tension and fear.  She remembers the day she gave words to that ideal whilst driving with her mother in her car down a long clear street at sunset.  In that car on that day she expressed to her mother her longing to do something to help women.  She recalls her mother looking at her and saying “You can do it!”

Zainab was a soft target for the advances of Saddam Hussein as her father was his personal pilot and considered a “friend” and that meant that Saddam was often around.  Her parents panicked and when a marriage proposal that would take Zainab away from his unwanted attentions came their way, her parents accepted in order to protect her.

Her marriage was a three month disaster and Zainab found herself in America walking out of ther marriage with $400 and a Persian rug.

For a long time Zainab blamed her mother – she writes:  “I felt betrayed by the woman I loved most.  It took time and writing about it to see that my mother was no different from the women living  through wars that I work with, the women who give their kids away to strangers.  They say “take them” and I realize that mothers do that out of love, hoping their children will have better lives”

In America she started off by selling cards at Hallmark and sweaters at The Limited.  Within two years however, she was in Washington working as a translator for the League of Arab States.  Thereafter she went to University to study politics and history that had been hidden from her in Iraq.  On one hand she learned about the German Holocaust and on the other hand she learned about other hidden horrors committed by Saddam Hussein.  She realised that holocausts were still being perpetrated in the world today.

One day she came across a piece in Time Magazine about how the army in Bosnia targeted Muslim women for “special treatment”.  It was the story of the rape camps that really got to her.  She learned that women in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia were held in camps where they were raped day and night.  These rapes were part of the strategy to break the will of the people, to destroy their society, to have women give birth to children that would end up as outcasts.

Zainab remembers breaking down into uncontrollable sobs and within her rose the passion and the will to help the suffering women who have to endure this soul destroying humiliation foisted upon them.

This led her to journey to Croatia to meet these women first hand.   she learned about one women who had been in a rape camp for nine months – this woman was given a number and when her number was called she had to go from soldier to soldier, enduring repeated gang rapes.  When she was eight months pregnant, they let her go.

Zainab Salbi did more that just cry at the stories she heard.  She recognized the need and embraced what would become her life’s work.   She went to school during the day and wrote brochures and stuffed envelopes at night.  She traveled back to Croatia with the first the first money she raised through her hard work.

Today Women for Women International works in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kosovo, Iraq, Nigeria, Rwanda and Sudan.  Her focus is two-fold – to help with direct aid but also to help women heal and conquer their own inner demons so they might become active in building a better world.


Between Two Worlds – Escape from Tyranny: Growing up in the Shadow of Saddam.

If you knew me you would Care.

The other side of War:  Women’s stories of hope and survival.

A Thousand Sisters:  A journey into the worst place on Earth to be a Women:  Lisa Shannon with Zainab Salbi.





I chose the following short video because it not only portrays the philosophy of women for women international, but the beautiful heart of  Zainab Salbi speaking to us as women, sharing her light and encouragement to write a new story as we dream a new world into being….