Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Interview with Zainab Salbi, Founder of Women for Women International

With finances a little tight this year, I've had to reduce the number of organizations I'm donating to in 2009. One of the ones I am continuing to support is Women for Women International.

This is my second year as a "sister," which means that I pay $27 a month to support one woman for a year while she goes through a program to help her rebuild her life after war. I also write a letter to her each month; sometimes she writes back. At the end of the year, if I'd like to continue being a sister, I am matched with a new woman. I was thrilled when Zainab Salbi, Women for Women International's Founder and CEO, agreed to an interview with me for the Big Vision Podcast. (edited transcript below).

During our conversation, I was particularly moved by her revelation that she started Women for Women International not only to fill a social need, but also for her own healing. Her personal story is chronicled in the memoir, Between Two Worlds: Escape From Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam.

Our conversation began with Zainab describing how Women for Women International serves women survivors of war. Please note that there is a graphic description of what one women endured, but the rest of the interview is very uplifting--I promise! You can also listen to the interview on the Big Vision Podcast site, download it from iTunes, or play it on the little player below:

Zainab Salbi: Women for Women International aims at helping women move from victims, to survivors, to active participants. The way we do that is by asking every single woman around the world to sponsor one woman at a time by sending her $27 a month, along with a letter to start a communication link between the two women. You get her picture. You get her letters. You get to exchange as many letters as you want with her. It depends really on both of you, how much you want to do that.

This is our own form of public diplomacy, where women are reaching out to each other despite all of their boundaries, or their differences, or whatever, and looking at their connections and similarities.

Once the sponsored woman gets into the program - and she usually is one of the most socially excluded women in her own community within a conflict or post-conflict area - she is grouped with a group of 20 other women in what's called a "women's circle."

She goes through an intensive training program in an educational track, that teaches her about her rights as a woman in health, economy, society, and politics, among other things. She also goes through a vocational skills and business skills training track, where it ends up giving her tangible skills, so she can get a job.

It's a one-year program. The women meet every other week in the women's circles in what we call, "safe havens." These are our offices where, literally, there may be fighting outside, or just instability outside.

The women are meeting inside. There is a group of women discussing women's rights, and another group is discussing their bodies. Another group is discussing their legal rights, and another group is learning organic farming. Another group is learning how to make tiles or bricks.

Literally, the safe haven for women is the only space where they can go, and learn, and share their stories. At the end of the year, upon their graduation, the goal becomes, how can we help them get a job? So, we do different things from microcredit lending, to commercial organic farming, to social enterprises, where the job becomes, how do we help her get a job?

I just came from a meeting where I was told that the women we are servicing in Southern Sudan are earning double the per capita income in that country. The women that we are servicing in Congo, where, if they are lucky, they get $0.20 to $0.30 a day before we get them - these are the most socially and economically excluded women - now they are earning $140 a month.

So, there are lots of tangible results from what we are doing, and that's how we measure our success.

That's the story of Women for Women. We work in countries like Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, among others. We started from, in 1993, helping 33 women, to 16 years down the road, we have impacted 172,000 women directly and distributed $79 million to them. Right now, we are working with 53,000 women on a monthly basis in eight conflict areas.

Wow. 53,000, that's amazing! Do you have one or two success stories about individual women that are some of your favorites who have gone through the Women for Women International program?

Well, I'm looking at the picture of one them, Honorata, who is one of my best teachers in this world and a hero for me. Honorata was a high school principal. She speaks three languages fluently, Swahili, English, and French, among many other local languages.

She was a sexual slave. One day, after she left her school, she was kidnapped by the rebels. The first thing they did when they kidnapped her, was they took her to the forest, sawed her wedding ring off of her finger and paralyzed her finger in the process. The first thing they told her is, "You are no longer one man's wife. You are every man's wife right now."

In the year and a half that they had her, they violated her in so many different ways. That included forcing her to cook for them, to clean for them, to carry their ammunition for them, and to get raped by them every single day. That even included being pinned on a cross and gang-raped as men were drumming and dancing in a circle around her.

She finally managed to escape, and in her escape, she had to go through the bush and eat grass and leaves. It was a very harsh journey, and so she got into a safer place only to be gang-raped again, and this time, in front of her daughter. When she talks about the experience she says, "The rape in front of my daughter was more painful than when I was pinned on the cross."

When we met her, Honorata was homeless. Her family had abandoned her. She had not seen her family for a long time. She literally was disoriented, something that is perfectly understandable when life is swept from underneath your feet in a matter of seconds for no reasons you know of.

Within only a year, she had gained her confidence. She started a business with her women's circle that does batik fabric. She started her own trading business on the side, immediately earning her economic power, basically, with her income.

But, she realized that this is not enough. She was saying, "Surviving, alone, is not enough. I really have the responsibility to speak out."

For a year and a half, she volunteered every single free minute that she had. She would go to women and advocate that they had to vote in the election, and they had to speak about what happened to them. They could not keep their silence.

She once took a microphone in a big celebration on Women's Day that we had at our office there, and she addressed a group of men who are the governor, and the mayor, and different government officials. She said, "You need to know that pain has an eye that sees, and pain has an ear that hears. Today, pain has a mouth, and it is speaking to you."

She told them the details of her rape. She told them, "You've got to take responsibility for stopping that. You cannot look in the other direction while this is happening to our country."

Her courage is absolutely magnificent. It is inspiring. For someone to know that my responsibility is not only to survive, but to break my silence, and to speak out, and to encourage other women to speak out, is . . . I am in awe of her courage.

Without her, I wouldn't have my own simple and small courage of speaking my own truth. She is absolutely my teacher. She has since joined Women for Women International staff in Congo, and she is one of the best staff that we have, the most inspiring one because when she speaks with the women, she tells them, "I was where you were; where you are today. And I'm telling you it is possible to rebuild your life, and it is possible to dance and to sing again."

I just came from Congo and met with her, and a lot of other women in Congo and Rwanda and I am constantly amazed. Just absolutely amazed at every single meeting I have with women who have gone through so much horror and through - not only in terms of their rapes; not only because they saw their houses being burned and families being pillaged in front of them. Not only because they are living in refugee camps where the living conditions in these camps are so horrible and miserable. But, despite all of that, they started every gathering of women with singing and dancing. And they ended every single gathering of women with singing and dancing.

They are all really teachers for us that life may be really hard in so many different ways, and really cruel in many other ways, but it is also beautiful. That human spirit and resilience will always triumph at the end of the day. They are teachers, and Honorata is a teacher for me.

Women for Women International has been around for 16 years. Why do you think it succeeds and thrives and continues? What is the secret sauce?

I've spent years trying to identify the secret sauce actually. You know what? As goofy as it may sound, it is love. [laughs] Honestly.

It is the sincerity and the authenticity in what we are trying to do. And doing what we are saying, and saying what we are doing. The agenda here is not to, "stay in business."

I always say the day we run out of business is a good day. The agenda here is to really deliver. This is not about anything else, but doing the right thing for the women and serving them. And the day we lose that I am convinced we will lose everything about us. We will lose our success. We will lose our growth, whatever it is. Whatever all the metrics of success that people use to measure themselves; the day we lose our love, and our authenticity and sincerity towards the mission of the organization, we will lose much more than that.

Every single staff member; every single leader in the organization - You know, we have 600 staff members, 540 of them are of the countries that we are working in, and led by a woman leader of the country that we are working in. Every single one of them has a story. They are not from the elite. They are not people who have never seen pain and have not triumphed from it. Every single one.

Our country director in Rwanda was a refugee all her life. Our country director in Bosnia was a survivor of the four-year siege of Sarajevo. The country director in Kosovo was a refugee during the war in Kosovo, etc. It moves on and on and on. Every single one of them is about their own life's mission, and it is about their own healing.

The sincerity and the authenticity towards the women we serve is the core of who we are.

What is the path that brought you to this work? You started describing it a little bit in the beginning. Where did this idea come from, and what brought you here to starting this organization?

I think there are two ways to answer this question. On the one hand, the formal way to answer this question would be: I was 20 when I arrived in the U.S. I grew up in Iraq during Saddam's time, and during the time in which we had the war with Iran.

I grew up seeing injustice all around me in Iraq, and not being able to say and utter a word about it, a) because it is dangerous in a dictatorship, and b) because my family was actually close to Saddam, and the fact that my father was his personal pilot meant that we were watched that much closer. Seeing injustice and being aware of it, but knowing that I cannot say anything about it because that could kill my own family.

When I came to the States, it was my first time learning about the Holocaust. I had never known about it, and that same month that I was taking a class about the Holocaust was when I learned about the concentration camps, and the rape camps in Bosnia.

I was innocently saying, but we said, "'Never again' so how come there are concentration camps now? We need to do something about it." That is how the journey started.

Honestly, it was starting first with wanting to volunteer with any women's group that was helping women in Bosnia and none existed at the time.

Then, I wanted to donate anything I could for women in Bosnia. Again, I could not find any group. Finally I said, "Well, I'm going to do it." And that is how it started. It started from a very simple effort of being frustrated that there weren't many services.

There were rape camps and concentration camps in 1993, and we were not outraged about it and doing something about it. And that is how the story started. That is the formal story.

The informal story; it took me years to recognize it; is that at the end of the day, and this is my own personal acknowledgement, at the end of the day, it is my own healing. I honestly believe that if I don't acknowledge, and if each one of us doesn't acknowledge our own personal incentive for what are we seeking when we are trying to do something of value and charitable, and that feels good and right. What is it that we are seeking for? What is our personal incentives?

For me, it was my own healing. My growing up in war shaped the way I look at the world and I see the world. We only look at war, from an American perspective; from a front line discussion. We don't look at it from a back line discussion, and that has everything to do with, not with the soldiers, but with the civilians and with the mothers, really, who are running life in the midst of war.

It was my own story of wanting to understand why my mother sent me to America all of a sudden in an arranged marriage that I document. I document this whole story in my memoir, Between Two Worlds. Why would my mother betray me? It took me years to understand that my mother was no different than the mothers that I am working with in Bosnia or Kosovo or different countries, or Congo, who often offer me their children; hoping that I will give them a better life, and get them away from the injustice that is happening in their own countries.

More than that, I was raped also myself, and I was so shy and ashamed of even acknowledging that. And to go out and tell everyone, "You have to break your own silence," but the truth is, I didn't break my own for a long time. People like Honorata were the ones who gave me the courage to speak about my own story and to document my own story.

It was their courage and perspective on life, and understanding that we need to break our silence. Unless we do that we cannot stop that vicious cycle where women are often stuck in the injustice that we often see.

It is a long answer but it is the most truthful answer I can give you.

I think that often times, people who find themselves drawn to work to change something about the world don't recognize that somehow it is reflecting something, like you're saying, that they want to heal or change about what is going on inside them.

Some folks are very involved in their inner healing, and don't realize that if they did something out in the world they would feel better. There are folks who are very focused on changing their outer world and don't realize that they need to work on some stuff inside so that they can do better work out in the world.

I appreciate your telling that story and illuminating that connection, which I think sometimes is not discussed enough in the social change field.

Also, in the social change field I think we often - the sector has a sense of self-righteousness and heroism. You know, the truth is there isn't such a thing as a hero. We have our weaknesses and our strengths, and it is so much easier to point the finger outwardly and say, "I am here to save her, or save these other women."

The truth is we are trying to save ourselves. And saving yourself is important enough and we do it in different ways. Saving ourselves is part of saving humanity and saving the world, I feel, especially with the discussion of women because it is such a global issue. It is not a third world issue or a conflict issue.

The discussion of women is a global issue and we need to look at our global sisterhood, our unity, the common stories between us, and how we can save each other and ourselves in the process, and not make it a savior-victim dynamic.

I also appreciate your explaining that, yes, you founded this incredible successful organization, but that process isn't always as straightforward as one might think, and it can be kind of messy.

What advice do you have for people who have the idea, "I want to start an organization, or project, or social enterprise to make the world a better place"?
What advice do you have for them as they are starting out?

Many. [laughs] One is A.) and this is not by priority, one is humility. We start a journey thinking that we know all the answers. Really, it is a long journey and everyday is a humbling day of knowing, "Oh, I may know some of the answer, or half of the answer, or none of the answer, but I have to listen, and I really need to listen to the very people that I am intending to help."

I am convinced that half of the solutions are already with the very people we are trying to serve, but we need to listen first. So, one is humility; that we don't know it all.

Just to give you a short story on that. One time I was helping a Bosnian woman on her business plan. She wanted to have a small chicken farm. She wanted to buy 20 chickens, and I was trying to help her by asking What is the inoculation and what is the cost of each chicken? And all of these things. Finally, I asked her, "Well, how many eggs does a chicken give a day?" And she looked at me and said - well, she didn't tell me that I was stupid, but I really felt it from her look, and I deserved that. It was one egg, one egg!

It was as simple as, here I am, with my degrees and you know, a worldly person, traveling the world and da-da-da,and I didn't know the most simple answer to life. A chicken gives one egg a day.

So, humility, humility, humility; we do not know all the solutions.

B.) It is painful. You know, it is not luxurious and lavish, and here is the hero going to the field, and all of these things. It is a very painful journey. Painful in the fact that there is a large business aspect to it.

One of my colleagues was telling me, she said, "I'm here because we are helping women survivors of wars. What people don't know is that I work on HR issues and finance issues and budget and all of that every single day." That has nothing to do with women survivors of wars directly, but obviously it is part of the business.

There is all the un-fun aspect of it, and that part of it. The other part of it is it takes a sacrifice. It is a huge sacrifice. Not only the amount of work you put in, but if I am to tell the story - The first three years, I had no money whatsoever, whatsoever. Absolutely not even knowing how to survive. So, it takes a while.

All my friends were buying their cars and houses, and lots of them were making fun of me. "Oh, Mother Teresa, wanting to save the world." The truth is, it is a big sacrifice, and it is not always a fun ride, but it is worth every single minute and every single drop of it.

I wake up every single day and I say, "It is a good day to fly because the world is such a beautiful world despite the misery that I witness in it." And I say, "It is a good day to die," because if I die today I am telling you for the record; I will die a content woman because I will die a woman who has been true to my beliefs and my values.

Yes, this wasn't an easy journey. Yes, it is painful both because of all the nitty gritty stuff that you have to do. But, also, meeting a woman who has gone through such horrible stories and sometimes you can help her, and sometimes you cannot help her. It is a very painful thing. You go through your own trauma, your own second-hand post-traumatic stress. You go through all of these things and it is worth it. It is a beautiful journey and I regret none of it.

I think everyone needs to have their own journey where at the end of the day it makes life worth it and beautiful.

And for listeners who would like to get involved with Women's for Women International work, how can they do that?

Please, please, please help [laughs]. Go to and I say please because I really worry that in this particular economic crisis and circumstances that as we are all cutting our own expenses and our own funding, it is the one thing that I so worry if people start cutting giving to causes, charitable donations and generosities. The impact of that is so magnificent. We are talking about people who are really struggling to eat one meal a day, and the goal is to help them eat two, let alone three meals a day.

The impact of cutting our own donations to make the world a better place; it is significant not only on the lives of the very women that we are trying to help today, but frankly speaking, I think on our own lives a few years down the road.

I just really worry. I don't know how much it is being addressed out there in the world, but of all the cuts that we need to do in our spending, this is the one area that I feel we need to increase because of, not only the moral values, but the practical values in investing and stabilizing the world. Women are the best way to make that investment possible and feasible, and with a great outcome.

Is there anything else that you didn't get to talk about that you wanted folks to know about Women for Women International's work?

This is one experience in which, as we were talking about, you think that you are helping someone, but in the process, you get helped. How? In so many different ways including by getting a humble and very simple letter from someone who is saying thank you for your sacrifice.

If there is one investment you need to make, honestly - I just really hope that everyone gets to go and see their sisters, but also the work that we are doing. It is the most tangible work I can promise anybody. The most tangible outcome that you can ask for in terms of every dollar really helping them rebuild their life.

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  1. I can literally feel my heart stretching as it tries to hold Zainab Salbi's compassion and courage, and further as it embraces the stories of the women whose lives she serves and honors.

    Thank you, Britt, for one of the most important interviews I've ever read.

  2. Hi Christine,

    Thank *you* for taking the time to read the interview and for sharing your feelings about it here and on Twitter as well.

    I have been thinking a lot about the idea of service being motivated by self-healing as well as healing of others (that we talked about in the interview).

    The more people I interview the more important the connection between inner and outer work seems to me. We can't ignore one or the other.

    Seane Corn talked about a similar idea in my interview with her. when she said, "who better to serve another alcoholic from compassionate empathy, than an alcoholic. Who better to serve someone who has dealt with domestic violence, than someone who has also walked that path of abuse. Your experience becomes your wisdom, your wisdom becomes your empathy, and your empathy becomes the tool that you use to connect with people on a soul level."

  3. Great interview! Even though I've been a fan of Women for Women for a while (and am a fellow "sister") I am always touched to hear more of Zainab's story and what she has been able to accomplish. I think Women for Women is a great testament that investing in a woman can change a whole community.

  4. Thanks, Kristin, and thanks for the shout out on Twitter too!

  5. This is excellent. As the Founder of the Khaya Cookie Company ( where we create opportunity one bite at a time by providing formerly unemployed women with jobs by teaching them how to make our gourmet cookies I was very inspired. Kudos to you!
    The Khaya Cookie Company

  6. Singing and dancing after the horror they've been? It sounds unbelievable but I can relate.. Awe inspiring Interview!


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