Imagine growing up in a normal life that suddenly gets tossed and turned because of a war. That is what happened to Zainab Salbi, the Iraqi-American woman and founder of “Women for Women international”.
Salbi lived in Iraq in a moderate family when suddenly the war between Iraq and Iran erupted. At the same time she discovered that her parents knew Saddam Hussein. He supposedly liked her family because they weren’t political but as we all know, everything was political. Salbi got strict orders from her mother saying she shouldn’t look him in the eyes ect… so she knew she had to be afraid of this figure she called her “uncle”.
In 1990 her parents sent her to Chicago for an arranged marriage just to get her out of the country. The man she had to marry, the man who had to comfort her and make her feel safe, raped her. Luckily she found the strength in the things her mother used to say when she was younger “you must be independent, you must be strong, you must not let anybody touch you or talk to you in the wrong way!”. On that note she left her husband, went to college, moved to Washington D.C. and fell in love with her husband Amjad Atallah.
She wrote a memoir about her escape from the inner circle of Saddam Hussein to the United States called “Between Two Worlds: Escape form Tyranny-Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam”.
One day she saw an article about rape victims in Bosnia, after seeing the picture of these women and reading their stories she knew she had to do something. I guess Zainab’s motto was “go big or go home” because she gave up her honeymoon to found Women for Women International in 1993, an organization that addresses social and economic empowerment of marginalized women.
These women come together in classes of 25 to build support networks, to share experiences, to learn critical skills and to acces new resources. They learn basic business skills and a vocational skill that helps them with learning to stand on their own two feet.
They also learn how to manage their own health and the health of their families like good hygiene and nutrition.
Men are also engaging because this happens to be an important instrument in changing social and cultural norms that constrains women’s autonomy and decision making.
Needless to say. because of all these changes made with these women, they are also capable of passing on their knowledge to their own children which creates the “ripple-effect”.
“I call it a training program that is building her confidence, self-esteem, reminding her of her value. It is about how do you get right into the economy and into earning a living so you can stand up on your feet” – Zainab Salbi
The organization has distributed more than $103 million in direct aid an microloans that helped 316 000 women access social and economic opportunities.
Meanwhile her organization runs programs in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Sudan.
She is now giving her mother’s speeches to the women she helps.