Born in 1970 in Baghdad, Iraq, Salbi grew up in a privileged world where her father was a personal pilot for Saddam Hussein. Salbi was only 11 when her father was chosen for Hussein’s staff, and spent much of her teenage years close to the Iraqi leader. The position was seen as a privileged one; however, Salbi has talked about its negative impact with the family often forced to spend weekends with Saddam Hussein and having to live with the fact that he watched their every move.
Salbi’s mother bought her up telling her stories of strong women and teaching her to believe she should stand up for herself and not assume the traditional role of wife who ran the home, but despite this, her mother insisted on an arranged marriage when Salbi was just 19 years old. This meant Salbi had to leave Iraq in 1990 to live in the United States of America where her arranged marriage to an Iraqi living in America took place.
Not long after her marriage, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and Salbi lost contact with her family. Soon after this, the marriage that was meant to be her escape from the life she was forced to lead in Iraq also turned sour. Her husband became abusive but the strength instilled in Salbi by her mother gave her the skills and inner strength she needed to leave him and make her own way in life.
In the early nineties, now married to her second husband a Palestinian-American man, Salbi became interested in the plight of women caught up in wars across the world. Inspired by her own experiences close to Saddam Hussein, living in Iraq during its war with Iran, and watching her family go through the Gulf War, Salbi decided to help these women improve their lives.
Instead of a honeymoon, Salbi and her husband chose to set up an organisation that linked American women with female survivors of war in Bosnia. They returned to America from Bosnia and set up Women for Women International with a tiny budget but huge ideas when Salbi was just 23 years old. With the help of small team of volunteers, they began to build aid funds and increase the awareness of the impact of war on these women.
Since its beginnings, Women for Women International has helped more than 300,000 women who have survived wars in places including Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sudan and Rwanda, and has distributed more than $100million (US) in aid and loans. The women helped by Women for Women International are enrolled in programmes that help them learn their rights, improve their education, and develop business skills so they can support their families, many of which have been torn apart by the conflicts in their home countries.
Salbi is a regular contributor to television and radio programmes, and gives frequent talks on how women deal with the aftermath of war and how they are treated during conflicts including the use of violence and rape. She has also written two books. Her first, a memoir, detailed her childhood living in the shadow of Saddam Hussein and her move to America where she started her new life. The second called The Other Side of War is a collection of stories from women who have survived war in their countries and are now beginning new lives filled with hope.
She has been honoured for her work in both America and internationally and was hosted at the White House by then-president Bill Clinton in 1995 in honour of her work in Bosnia. Clinton also nominated Salbi as one of Harper’s Bazaar 21st century heroines. She was named Time Magazine innovator of the month for her charity work and the World Economic Forum named her as a Young Global Leader in 2007. In 2011, she was included in a list of the world’s top 100 women in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. In 2006, Women for Women International was awarded the Conrad N Hilton Humanitarian prize for its work alleviating human suffering, becoming the first women’s organisation to achieve this honour.
As well as her work for Women for Women, Salbi has gained a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Women’s Studies from George Mason University in America and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Zainab Salbi has become a champion and inspiration for women around the world, and has lobbied for women to be more included in rebuilding countries following conflicts at both grassroots and higher levels. She has argued that women from these countries should be included in discussions about how to move the country forward and can be of great help in rebuilding a country’s political and economic health.
In her book The Other Side of War, she writes again of the importance of women in war-torn countries:
“War is not a computer-generated missile striking a digital map. War is the color of earth as it explodes in our faces, the sound of child pleading, the smell of smoke and fear. Women survivors of war are not the single image portrayed on the television screen, but the glue that holds families and countries together. Perhaps by understanding women, and the other side of war…we will have more humility in our discussions of wars…perhaps it is time to listen to women’s side of history.“