Written by Megan Blevins Tuesday, October 30 2012
Zainab Salbi answered the phone. Her Iraqi-American voice came through the receiver, and the internationally known humanitarian, author and businesswoman – who has dedicated her life to helping women in war-torn countries around the world – came to life.
The details of her own story, the 43-year-old Salbi has shared in her national bestselling memoir, “Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny, Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam.” In the book she breaks her silence and shares the story of growing up in Iraq and being the privileged daughter of Saddam Hussein’s personal pilot.
But, the confident power that Salbi’s voice commands, even through the telephone, has not always been so. For years, she struggled with owning the truth of her story, and it was only through the power of other women’s stories that Salbi grew to understand the need to give fellow women a voice, while taking the time to invest in women across all cultures.
Power of a Story
“There isn’t a program to break one’s story – there’s no magic in that,” said Salbi. “The magic is in taking charge of our own story… but that is easier said than done.”
Since 1993, Salbi has been sharing the stories and providing aide for women in war-torn countries through Women for Women International, the “sister-to-sister” organization she founded that connects sponsors in the United States and women survivors of war-torn countries.
Salbi has had the opportunity to meet all types of women – from the very poor to the very rich – all of whom were living in the isolation and silence, and shame and embarrassment of their traumatic personal experiences. While in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2004, Salbi met a woman who had been raped, her village and home burned, and she was wearing the only dress she had and shoes that she had made out of garbage.
The Congolese woman told Salbi that she had never told anyone the details of her story. When Salbi asked if she didn’t want her to share it with anyone else, the woman told Salbi that if she could tell the whole world her story then she would, but since she couldn’t, that Salbi must do it for her.
“That was the most humbling moment of my life,” said Salbi. “I had dedicated my life to service, but the irony of it is the very woman I thought I was serving had far more dignity and integrity in her story than I did in mine… I cried for five hours after that interview. I was not worthy of sitting in front of her or other women, asking them to break their silence if I couldn’t even break my own. That woman ended up saving me.”
Breaking Her Silence
After that day, the personal journey of writing Salbi's memoir began. It was not an easy journey. At first, she told her publisher that she was going to write about Iraqi women, but her publisher said he wanted her story.
“I was kicking and screaming,” said Salbi. “It is so much easier to talk about ‘the other.’ It is not an easy journey to live one’s truth.”
Salbi and her family grew up in the inner-circle of Saddam Hussein. Salbi was the daughter of his personal pilot. Her mother strongly believed in Salbi’s education and always encouraged her to not take on the traditional female role in Iraqi society. But when Salbi turned 20, her mother pushed her into accepting a marriage proposal from an Iraqi man living in the United States, a notion that went against everything her mother had always encouraged her to do.
Against her will, Salbi accepted the proposal and in 1990 arrived in the U.S. where they were quickly wed. One month later, Saddam invaded Kuwait, severing all communication between Salbi and her parents, and when Salbi’s husband became abusive, she heard nothing but her mother’s words echoing inside her heart – “Do not become a prisoner.”
Salbi left her husband and started her new life in the United States.
The Voice of Investment
“We have to take ownership of our stories,” said Salbi. “There’s a sad medley in every woman I know. We need to change our narrative of that of the victim to that of a peaceful woman.”
Salbi teaches women that they can either lead their lives out of fear or they can lead them out of love. In fear, women worry constantly and ask themselves if they are capable of achieving their goals. In love, women lead their lives out of plenty, abundance and focus on the possibility of what could happen and not what could go wrong.
“We must ask ourselves what could go right and what could happen,” said Sabli. “Once a woman sees this possibility of change, the investment has happened. We can all inspire others to make a change.”
Salbi encourages everyone to help make this change for the women in war-torn countries that Salbi has dedicated her life to serving by sponsoring a woman through Women for Women International.
“Sponsoring has never been about asking people to give money,” said Salbi. “People share their stories with each other and send pictures, and in the process, you may be the light that she needs to heal or she may be the light that you need. I met a waitress a few days ago who said she had been a sponsor for 10 years, and it has forever changed her…. We must make the change and do it for ourselves.”
Living Her Truth… Now
Salbi’s own narrative has led her to today, to her ultimate truth: She’s no longer speaking from a victim’s perspective.
“I’ve become a candle – a candle shining with hope to inspire other women that there is the possibility of change,” said Salbi.
She believes that we can live in a world where every woman fulfills her dreams, makes her own choices and fulfills her own potential.
“As the saying goes, ‘A happy woman leads to happy family, and a happy family leads to a happy community,’” said Salbi.
In 2011, Salbi left Women for Women International after 18 years as the CEO; she wanted to leave room for another leader to emerge. She now sits on the board and is working on her next two books, one that will share the love stories of women from war-torn countries and the other, the tale of her journey back home to Iraq.
As for the idea of leaving behind a personal legacy, Salbi laughs.
“I don’t want to leave anything behind,” said Salbi. “When I die, I will be sand. The wind will come and I will go. All I want is to live in a world where every woman is acknowledged for who she is. I don’t care if people remember me 100 years from now. ‘Am I living my truth today?’ is how I live my life and how I want all women to live.”
More on the global empowerment of women:
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy jumped at the chance to co-direct "Saving Face," a documentary that sheds light on the brutal acid attacks women are victims of in her native country of Pakistan and surrounding areas.
10x10 is at once a powerful documentary film, a global social action campaign and an extraordinary opportunity to fight global poverty by educating adolescent girls in developing countries.
After witnessing the murder of her best friend and escaping brutal rape and torture in her native Cambodia, Somaly Mam now devotes her life to empowering victims of sexual slavery.
Megan Blevins lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia., and is a full-time freelance writer. Her work has been featured in newspapers and blogs including The Washington Post Express, Urban Organic, the Daily Citizen News, Get Storied and Wildlife Promise, a blog of the National Wildlife Federation. In January 2013, she relaunched her personal blog, One Girl In, where she publishes fictional short-stories and personal tales. In 2010, she was named a Rotary International Ambassador for her volunteer work with the local Rotary Club in Bariloche, Argentina.