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Zainab Salbi

Iraqi-American Writer

Washington, DC

My journey has been full of adventures, some beautiful and some very challenging, but all have led me to believe that taking risks to live my truth is worth the effort.

I learned about the rape camps in Bosnia the same month I learned about the Holocaust. That was back in 1992 when I was a recent immigrant from Iraq; I had survived the Iran-Iraq War and made it to America just before the first Gulf War. I finished my college education while in the States, where I learned about people's commitment to “Never Again” after the Holocaust; and it was in the front pages of daily newspapers where I learned of similar crimes being committed at the heart of Europe in what was formerly known as Yugoslavia.

I had no historical connection, understanding or even knowledge of the Bosnian people who were suffering in concentration camps and rape camps at the time. I just knew it was wrong and that I had to do something about it. I went to the library to understand the history, and I searched for a women's group where I could volunteer and help women who had been displaced and violated. I had been through war myself, and I know the feeling of isolation people in war often feel and how any ray of hope to show love and care can go a long way.

But none of the organizations I called had done anything yet, in fact, most asked me to check in few months later. That's when I had to make a choice: to wait for someone else to make a difference or to do it myself now. With little work experience and definitely no financial resources, I decided to lean in.

Over a midnight snacks with my then-husband, I came up with the idea of asking women from around the world to build a bridge of support for woman survivors of war by sending monthly financial support and exchanging letters and pictures. Support could be offered on an individual basis; this way any woman would be able join in and make a difference.

Once I had clarity about what could be done, others joined in. The Unitarian Church – which was also seeking to do something – heard about my efforts and asked to meet. I was nervous and young—at only 23 years old, all I had was my commitment and drive. I borrowed my father-in-law's briefcase so I would appear professional; little did I know that such things didn’t matter.

The Unitarian Church agreed to support me until I stood on my own two feet. A few months later, I started Women for Women International using my very humble savings, money raised from church fundraisers and support for 30 women survivors of the war in Bosnia. When I went to distribute that aid, I realized I wanted to dedicate my life to helping women. That’s when I took a risk and quit my paying job, even though my husband and I were students and very much needed the money. Twenty years later,  I now realize that I couldn’t have lived my truth now if I hadn’t taken that risk then.

Women for Women is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The group has directly reached out to more than 300,000 women and distributed more than $100 million dollars in aid and loans in eight countries. After 18 years of leading the group, I have decided to hand over the leadership so I could start a new adventure, this time focused on reaching Muslim and Arab women through the media. My journey has been full of adventures, some beautiful and some very challenging, but all have led me to believe that taking risks to live my truth is worth the effort.