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
Now at 32, she's the president and founder of an organization
that has helped over 10,000 women from countries devastated by war
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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,"
When asked if her mission ever gets too emotionally draining, she
"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
"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 email@example.com.