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Zainab Salbi
One mission, thousands of lives
Pati Poblete, Chronicle Staff Writer
  Sunday, January 27, 2002

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When Zainab Salbi was a young girl growing up in Baghdad, Iraq, she'd tell her mother that one day she would help women around the world.

Now at 32, she's the president and founder of an organization that has helped over 10,000 women from countries devastated by war and genocide.

With five country offices and a network of over 35,000 women, Salbi has been honored at the White House, featured on an MSNBC documentary, a guest on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" twice, and is now on a mission to open a new office in Pakistan and extend aid to Afghani women.

After that, she'd like to open an office in San Francisco.

Not bad considering she started with $2,000 from her honeymoon money and worked out of a makeshift office in her in-laws' basement in 1993.

"People thought I was crazy when I was 23 and said I wanted to do this," she says, just back from a trip to Pakistan. "You're a newlywed; you should be thinking about your own lives."

But she had heard reports on the news of refugee and rape camps in Croatia.

"I looked everywhere, but there was no organization that existed to help these women. People said to just wait, that maybe something would come along. But women were suffering now, being raped now. There was no time to wait."

So Salbi and her husband of only six months decided to forget the honeymoon.

With the help of a small church in Alexandria, Va., they flew to Croatia and spent months helping women survivors and gathering enough information to start Women for Women International.

Salbi had intended to make this a part-time job while keeping her job as a translator with the Arab League in Washington, D.C.

But then she met a woman named Aysha who had been at a prison camp and had been raped every day for nine months. She was released when she was eight months pregnant, but by then she had no idea where to find her husband and two kids.

"I was not prepared for it," she says. "You can't say, 'I understand.' You can't cry in front of them. All you can do is listen, and let them lead you. Let them show you what you can do for them."

That's when Salbi quit her job and decided to give women in need her full- time attention.

Her hard work didn't go unnoticed. A day before President Bill Clinton was to sign the Dayton peace agreement that ended the war in 1995, he and the first lady held a ceremony for Salbi and her husband for their humanitarian efforts in Bosnia.

"He basically wanted to show us and the world that he did care about Bosnia.

It was very touching to sit and speak with him and his wife. I was only 25, but that's when people stopped laughing at what I was trying to do," she says.

Salbi has also found much support in the Bay Area. U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D- Oakland, sits on her board of advisers, author Alice Walker serves as an honorary member, philanthropist Anne Poirer of Berkeley is on her board of directors -- not to mention numerous Bay Area women who serve as sponsors for many of the women in the program.

Walking with her in the Mission District, it's difficult to imagine the scenes of horror and heartbreak she has chosen to surround herself with. She smiles sadly when she says she hasn't seen her husband, who is in London, in over a month. And she laughs when she says they still want to start a family within two years.

She describes herself as a Muslim who knows of war but strives for peace. "People have helped me because I am passionate. Yes, I am only one person, but I am proof that one person does count."

When asked if she'll be going home after Washington, she says she doesn't really have a home -- in the traditional sense, anyway.

"I go from office to office. I stay with people who work in these offices when I'm there, my friends. These are all my homes."

She's filled with stories from each country, both tragic and triumphant. She tells of the acid-burn victims in Bangladesh.

"Acid is used as a gun is in America. When a family can't marry a daughter off and she is seen as a burden, or when she refuses a marriage proposal, acid is thrown at her face. In these cases, the organization helps with plastic surgery and emotional support."

She tells of a woman in Bosnia who had survived a bombing only because her five children died on top of her while trying to protect her.

"This woman was living through the letters she was receiving from her American sister. One letter from this Chicago woman simply described what spring looked like and how her garden was blooming. This is the one she read every day, to remind her that life can be normal. Somewhere."

But it is Salbi's own story that has made her an inspiration.

"I was born in Baghdad and lived there until I was 19," she says. "I learned to coexist with war. You wake up with the sound of a missile hitting a neighbor, and you say, 'OK, it's not me today.' And you go back to sleep."

During the invasion of Kuwait, Salbi was in the United States visiting. The embargoes that soon followed prevented her from going home. She was forced to watch her family and country go through a war while she was in a country that she never intended to live in.

But she stayed and went to school, until the news from Croatia made it impossible for her to do nothing.

"So I know about war. I know about living in war, and about survival. And I know about wanting to help when you're miles away," she says.

When asked if her mission ever gets too emotionally draining, she pauses.

"I felt guilty. I didn't want to buy anything for myself. But that was not the answer. By suffering with them, I am not helping. I have to pull them up and show them there is a way to have a normal life.

"Some of them have been suffering for so long. The Afghani women have gone through 20 years of war -- they have forgotten what a dignified life is. Who am I to say I'm too tired? I cannot. I see their strength and I am rejuvenated. "

E-mail Pati Poblete ppoblete@sfchronicle.com.

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