By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 28, 2005
She was 11 when her father became Saddam Hussein's personal pilot. Amid Hussein's deadly palace intrigue, she was forced to call him uncle. As she blossomed into a teen, her parents feared so much for her safety under the gaze of Hussein that they sent her to Los Angeles for an arranged marriage. But that marriage delivered physical abuse, until she was able to escape and start her life anew.
Those are the contours of Zainab Salbi's life as she has written about them. But she will speak only generally in an interview about how she "felt the fear and lived the fear and tasted the fear" of Hussein's regime. When she was young, she says, "my mother would tell me, 'Never let any man oppress you. Never let any man hurt you. You have to always be strong.' "
Salbi, 35, has worked hard to keep her personal story in the background. She is more interested in focusing on her life's work and the women who have helped carry it out -- women she calls her "heroines." They are the ones who carry the work of Women for Women International, the aid organization Salbi founded, to war-torn regions.
From Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Serbia, Nigeria and Rwanda, her heroines came to town this week to regroup and renew their goals, especially the embattled women of Iraq. The group's work, which also reaches into Afghanistan and Colombia, addresses the suffering of women in war.
It is about rape and the struggle to recover. It is the quest, when war ends, for women to earn enough to feed and shelter their families. It is about that most intangible thing of all, about dignity and how to regain it.
Men suffer in war, too. "But they cannot be humiliated as a woman can be," says Hamide Latifi, Salbi's country director for the Kosovo region of Serbia, a woman who, like the others, says she "fights softly" to push for women's rights, their survival.
This narrative, of women and war, is Salbi's narrative, too, for she lived amid conflict in Iraq during its 1980s war with Iran. She will tell her story in "Between Two Worlds -- Escaping From Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam," to be released in October by Dutton-Gotham Books.
For now, though, she still is coming to terms with what it will mean to make her old life public. She remains nervous, even fearful, of being judged. She won't discuss that old life with Hussein, not just yet -- beyond the broadest descriptions of the oppression under which women lived.
With her stylishly close-cropped hair, fashionable suit and mod jewelry, Salbi looks like anything but a woman who has suffered. She exudes chutzpah and courage. She wears two large rings -- one amber, another amethyst. She calls them her "power rings," like a power suit.
Forbes magazine gave her its Trailblazer Award last month. In March, Time magazine hailed her as its "Innovator of the Month." She's been on Oprah six times and was honored, a decade ago, at the Clinton White House.
After her troubled first marriage in Los Angeles ended, she moved to the District and went to work for the League of Arab States. She also was in school, immersed in women's studies at George Mason University.
And then, in 1993, she learned of rape camps where women in the former Yugoslavia were being tortured and dehumanized. The news shocked her but also brought to life the issues she was studying.
"I remember reading the article and just crying and crying and saying, 'We have to do something about it,' " she says.
She'd been cloistered for most of her life by a regime that cut off contact or information about the outside world. She did not learn about South Africa and apartheid until she came to the United States and studied it. Likewise for the Holocaust. She had had no clue.
She had grown up amid the bombings of Baghdad during the war with Iran and escaped the violence of Hussein's regime. Bosnia galvanized her, gave her a chance to act.
Newly married to Amjad Atallah, a Palestinian American lawyer, she hatched a plan late one night while eating at a Denny's in Fairfax. Instead of paying for a honeymoon, they would travel to Croatia and deliver relief supplies. She approached the board of All Souls Unitarian Church for help with their plan.
For the presentation, "I borrowed my father-in-law's brief case because I thought that looked professional," Salbi says with a laugh. The church agreed to help raise funds. And Women for Women was born.
It was one drop in the bucket. Which soon became a river.
And that's pretty much the theory behind the organization: that individuals can make a difference, that "drops do eventually fill buckets," as Salbi says. Since then, the program has attracted the support of 18,000 American women who have donated money and sponsored 33,000 women in conflict zones and 133,000 family members. That's about $18 million in direct aid or loans.
Bosnia and Herzegovina became the site of Women for Women's first field office. Seida Saric leads it. Based in Sarajevo, the program began helping Muslim women whose husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, uncles and nephews had been massacred in the "ethnic cleansing" campaign of former Yugoslavia president Slobodan Milosevic. "From their eyes, you could see they were lost with really huge suffering," Saric remembers.
About 8,000 women have been helped in Bosnia since the program's inception. In addition to sending money for women, sponsors also write to them and establish sisterly dialogues.
The pattern has been repeated around the globe, one drop at a time.
In Rwanda, 5,000 women have been helped by the program there, created in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide of nearly a million people. In Nigeria, the program is trying to help women caught in the clash between Islam and Christianity and the tensions of modernism and traditionalism. About 7,000 women there are served by Women for Women.
Marcia Koford of Monterey, Calif., has sponsored women in Nigeria and Congo. She traveled to the District this week for Women for Women's annual gathering, including a reception held at the National Press Club where sponsors, board members and staff gathered.
"As an American woman who's leading a comfortable life, I would get so upset when I'd read the morning paper," says Koford, a retiree. And she has struggled herself, having raised four children as a single mother who once was on food stamps and had to cobble together part-time jobs.
Her support helped a Nigerian woman become financially stable by purchasing a generator and renting it out, says Koford proudly of her own drop in the bucket.
Salbi's vision is that by strengthening women, her organization can help rebuild communities and nations. In July, Salbi will travel to Sudan to test the waters for starting a Women for Women chapter there, now that that nation's wars are subsiding.
"We're in a seeking mode," she says. There are more buckets to fill.