Activist and author
B orn c. 1969 in Iraq; daughter of Basil and AliaSalbi; married second husband Amjad Atallah (co-founder of Women for Women International). Education: George Mason University, B.A., 1996; London School of Economics and Political Science, M.A., 2001.
Addresses: Office—Women for Women International, 4455 Connecticut Ave. NW, Ste. 200, Washington, DC 20008.
W orked as a translator, Washington, DC, c. early1990s; founder and president, Women for Women International (originally Women for Women in Bosnia), Washington, DC, 1993—.
T he co-founder of Women for Women International, Zainab Salbi affected world change by helping women in war-torn countries connect with and find economic support from women in the West. She has served as president of the group from its launch in 1993. A native of Iraq, Salbi also offered insight into the person and regime of Saddam Hussein with her 2005 autobiography Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam.
Born in Iraq during the late 1960s, she is the daughter of Basil and Alia Salbi. Her father was a skilled pilot for Iraqi Airlines; she grew up in a life of privilege, since her parents were part of the social elite in Baghdad. They knew Saddam Hussein before he came to power, but her parents were not impressed with him. He cultivated their friendship after he took charge of Iraq, though they did not want it. When Salbi was eleven years old, her father reluctantly became Saddam’s personal pilot because to refuse him could mean dire consequences. The family spent much time with Saddam and his cronies, where they were watched, controlled, and lived in fear.
Of her early years, Salbi told body+soul, “Growing up in Iraq, I saw all kinds of injustice—my best friend’s father getting executed, my mother on the verge of deportation simply because she was a Shia. As a child, I could do nothing about these things. I feared even showing my tears.”
While Salbi was studying languages at an Iraqi university, her mother feared for her safety. In an attempt to protect her daughter, Salbi’s mother sent her to the United States in 1990 where an arranged marriage awaited her. The marriage was abusive and she soon left her husband after he raped her. While Salbi was in the United States, Iraq invaded Kuwait, which led to the Gulf War of the early 1990s. Salbi waited to return to Iraq because of the war, but after it ended she decided to remain in the United States.
Moving to Washington, D.C., Salbi took a job as a translator. She also began working on her bachelor’s degree at George Mason University in Virginia. While a student there, international events inspired her to become an activist. Salbi, her second husband Amjad Atallah, and her friends were moved by the plight of women during the Yugoslavian civil war. Because of the Bosnian Serb policy of ethnic cleansing, many women were forced out of their homes and raped, tortured, or otherwise physically harmed.
Amidst her anger and her desire for the United States to do something about the situation in Yugoslavia, Salbi realized she could affect change. She founded what was then known as Women for Women in Bosnia (later known as Women for Women International) in 1993 to aid women in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia on a shoestring budget. The grassroots nonprofit found female volunteers in the United States and other Western countries to give financial and emotional support to women in the war-torn region.
Each volunteer was matched with a woman in need of help in Bosnia or Croatia. The Western sponsor sent $20 and a letter each month to their “sister” (in Women to Women terms) in a refugee camp. The money was used for food and personal items. The correspondence was just as important. Salbi explained to Bill Sizemore of the Virginian-Pilot, “The letters have an impact both ways. The women over there were completely isolated, in refugee camps. A lot of them felt very embittered and abandoned. So the letters acted as a connection to the outside world. To a lot of them, it restored the hope that there are still good people out there—there are still people who care.” After a sponsored woman was able to work and take care of herself, she left the program.
While the work Women for Women was doing was important, the group struggled in its early days. For the first six months of the group’s existence, operations were done out of the basement of Atallah’s parents’ home in Fairfax, Virginia. After getting a grant from Working Assets, Women for Women rented an office in Washington, D.C., and hired staff members. Within the first three years of the group’s existence, more than 1,000 women received $250,000 in aid. By 1996, Women for Women started a micro-lending program to help survivors start their own businesses. Job and life skill programs were also added to help women further improve their lives.
While Salbi served as president of Women for Women, she also continued working on her degree as much as she could. Though she remained in charge of the group, she cut back on her responsibilities so she could finally earn her bachelor’s degree from George Mason University in 1996. Salbi later returned to school, and she earned her master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2001.
Over the years, Salbi expanded the Women for Women program. By the late 1990s, women in Rwanda joined the program to get help, as did women in Nigeria and Bangladesh. In the early 2000s, Women for Women also reached Columbia, the Congo, Sudan, and Afghanistan. Over the years, the basic sponsorship program of Women to Women remained the same, though the amount sent each month increased slightly. By 2005, it was estimated that the group had helped 52,000 women.
In 1997, Salbi had talked of returning to Iraq when Saddam was no longer in control of the country. After the United States invasion of Iraq and removal of Saddam from power in 2003, she went back to her native country to visit several times. She also expanded the scope of Women for Women to include Iraq after the initial war ended; however, because of safety concerns for women and staff in Iraq, the sponsorship program cannot operate there. In a 2005 Washington Post online chat, Salbi explained about the group’s presence in Iraq, “We work with women across the country to both work on giving them job opportunities and to raising their awareness about the importance of their role and contribution to society, economy, politics and health . [W]e believe that we cannot have a strong country if we do not have strong women. Strong women do lead to strong nations, and that is what we work on.”
As Iraq became international news, Salbi decided to write a book about Iraqi women because she perceived the international reputation of them was incomplete. As she worked on the book with the guidance of her agent, she began including her own stories, which soon became the focus of the project. Salbi ultimately wrote a memoir, with coauthor Laurie Becklund, of her childhood in Iraq. Published in 2005, Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam was generally well-received. Writing in Vogue, Kate Bolick noted, “Her book, a torrent of vividly recalled memories, reads with the sort of artless verve that can come only from one who’s been unshackled from a lifetime of repression.”
Salbi’s memoir was popular, but her primary focus was ensuring Women for Women continued to grow and affect lives worldwide. By 2006, about 30,000 women worldwide were using its programs. Thus, 5.3 million people, including family and community members, were being affected by Women for Women’s work. Because of Salbi’s vision, the group received the 2006 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. With an award of $1.5 million, the prize is the world’s largest humanitarian honor. Salbi earmarked the funds to start a new project within Women for Women to construct permanent “opportunity centers” in regions where the group operates, to help women gain access to economic, social, and political programs in their communities.
Ultimately, Salbi knew her work with Women for Women had a contradictory element to it. She told Radio Free Europe, “I really believe war is like a flashlight on humanity. It shows us the worst of it, and it shows us the best of it. And part of the success for me comes from the best of humanity. Because every time I go and visit women in Bosnia or in Iraq or in Afghanistan or the Congo or other countries, I am in awe of the strength of these women, and the strength of humanity, and the beauty of humanity—as much as I am in awe of its ugliness.”
Strategic Planning and Institutional Development, Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, 1999.
(With Laurie Becklund) Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Sad-dam, Gotham, 2005.
The Other Side of War: Women’s Stories of Survival and Hope, National Geographic, 2006.
Africa News, October 22, 2006.
Associated Press Worldstream, November 7, 2007.
body+soul, May 2007, p. 25.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 6, 2005, p. A2.
News Tribune (Tacoma, WA), November 20, 2005, p. E7. Radio Free Europe, April 19, 2007.
San Francisco Chronicle, January 27, 2002, p. E1.
State Department Documents and Publications, November 20, 2006.
Times (London, England), November 1, 2005, p. 4.
Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA), February 28, 1997, p. B7.
Vogue, November 2005, p. 244.
“Between Two Worlds,” Washington Post,http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2005/09/30/DI2005093000803.tif.html (October 12, 2005).
Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2006.