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Zainab Salbi, who was raised under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein by parents who were trapped among his inner circle, grew up knowing fear, war, and the pain caused by corrupt and powerful people. In response, at a young age, she committed herself to building a better world—especially for women. After moving to the United States, at age 23, Zainab founded Women for Women, an international organization that, since 1993, has provided financial support, job training, and other services to 500,000 women survivors of war.
Philomena Kwao grew up incredibly curious and highly focused on her education. She dreamt of becoming a health policymaker or global health agency which led her to get her masters in International Health management. Moving to NYC and ultimately signing with JAG in July 2013, made her grow as a person in many ways. She knows that she wants to do EVERYTHING in fashion and use it as a launching pad to work with healthcare in developing countries, especially Ghana.
Philomena Kwao Once upon a time, there was a girl who would help thousands of women find their voices and tell their stories. Her name is Zainab.
Born in 1969, Zainab grew up in a two-story home nestled within a grove of eucalyptus trees in Baghdad, Iraq. The scent of eucalyptus wafted through the air, and when it rained, Zainab and her brothers would splash around while her father made paper boats for them.
Zainab’s father Basil was a pilot, and her mother Alia was a biology teacher. Alia sometimes told Zainab stories of the difficulties women faced around the world.
One day, when Zainab was still quite young, Alia pulled her aside.
“You must be independent,” Alia said fiercely. “You must be strong. You must not let anybody you or talk to you in the wrong way.”
Zainab stared into her mother’s large brown eyes and nodded. She wanted to be strong like her mother, and help other women be strong, too.
She could not know it then – but the challenges Zainab would face in her own life would one day lead her to do just that.
Kwao I’m Philomena Kwao. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
This week: Zainab Salbi. An Iraqi women’s rights activist, writer, and public speaker.
Kwao When Zainab was 10 years old, she came home one evening to find her mother waiting anxiously at the door.
“Where have you been?” Alia asked, hurrying Zainab inside.
Iraq had invaded its neighbor Iran, and as of that afternoon, their country was at war!
Zainab and her family hid from air raids as bombs shook the ground and toppled buildings around them. Neighbors sent their sons, fathers, and husbands off to fight—unsure if they would come back.
But Zainab’s parents were friends with someone who was very powerful: Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s president who would develop a very bad reputation around the world in the years to come.
He arranged to make a “special file” of documents for them that would keep them safe.
Zainab had been worried about the secret police coming in the middle of the night and sending them away – but with these special papers, they were safe. Alia wrapped Zainab in her arms.
“Don’t worry, honey,” Alia reassured her. “Iraq will always be our home.”
Kwao But everything had a price. And as it happened, being friends with Saddam Hussein had a very, very steep cost.
As the war ground on, Zainab watched her parents carefully. She would often find them whispering to each other, their bodies tense with fear.
One day, Saddam Hussein asked Zainab’s father to be his personal pilot. Zainab thought this was exciting news, but her father and mother did not.
Zainab was told to call Saddam “Amo,” or uncle. He came to their house often, and whenever he asked anything of them, they had to do it.
Amo seemed friendly enough to Zainab. But as she got older, she heard rumors of his cruelty and of the many people he hurt—including his own Iraqi people.
“I feel like a bird in a cage,” Alia once told her daughter. “Don’t ever let yourself be a bird in a cage, Zainab. Always be a free spirit.”
“I promise, Mama,” Zainab said.
But was this a promise she could keep?
Kwao As the blanket of fear grew around Zainab’s family, Zainab saw one way out: She would become a translator and move abroad. So, she went to college in Baghdad and learned English, French, and Arabic. It was her first step toward freedom.
Then, one day, Alia came to her daughter, her eyes shining with excitement. A man in America had asked to marry Zainab.
“La, la, la, Mama,” Zainab said. “No, no, no.”
Zainab was hurt. She wanted to focus on her studies. She wanted to marry for love. She thought her mom wanted her to be independent.
“You want a career, you want to see the world, you want freedom,” Alia said. “How can you ever find any of those things here?” And, for Zainab’s mother, it was important to get her daughter AWAY from Saddam Hussein.
Kwao So, Zainab agreed to move to Chicago to get away from Amo and the fear that smothered her family.
The war had recently ended, and as Zainab flew away from her home city, its lights sparkling beneath her, she wiped tears from her eyes.
But she would not give up on her dreams to educate herself, and to be independent.
Kwao Zainab arrived in Chicago and got married. Her husband did not treat her well. It was like she had traded one tyrant for another!
Zainab didn’t know what to do. She felt very alone.
Finally, after her husband hurt her one night, Zainab couldn’t take it anymore.
With the help of a friend, she stuffed all her belongings in a couple of bags, and she escaped. It was a tough decision, but one she felt she HAD to make.
Kwao Zainab moved to Los Angeles, California. She worked odd jobs to make ends meet, but life was hard. She called her mom in Iraq over and over but the calls never went through.
The United States had gone to war with Iraq, so all means of contact were cut off. Zainab watched on television as bombs crashed into the buildings of her hometown, fear burning in her throat and tears prickling at her eyes.
She had no idea if her family was alive.
And then, one day, she received a letter. Zainab opened the envelope with trembling fingers. It was from Alia, her mother. She told Zainab that they had survived the war.
Her mother, father, and brothers were all still alive.
“God willing,” Alia wrote, “we will see you again.”
Kwao Just a few months after the war ended in 1991, Zainab moved to Washington, DC. She had moved on from odd jobs in Los Angeles to finding work as a translator in the United States capital.
There, she found a group of friends, a support system who she could laugh with and play with. And, at a party one night she even met a man and, after a time decided to marry again. She was able to talk to him about her past and trust him with her future. His name is Amjad.
Eventually, in 1993, they decided to get married.
Zainab’s mother was even able to fly to the United States to attend their wedding. Looking at her mother, Zainab saw a spark of the independent woman she once knew, and it filled her with hope.
And as Zainab whirled around the dance floor in Amjad’s arms, she felt like the luckiest girl in the world. But, she would soon realize, there was work to be done.
Kwao Zainab and Amjad were happy, and when she went to college, he supported her decision.
She majored in women’s studies and international studies. There was so much to learn! About the roles of governments, the roles of women and girls around the world. And about the issues and challenges they face.
One day, soon after they were married, Zainab picked up a copy of Newsweek Magazine. Her eyes widened as she read about women who were being hurt in cruel and terrible ways by soldiers who were fighting a war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.
Zainab’s eyes filled with tears. Soon, she was weeping.
Amjad rushed into the room. She showed him the article.
Zainab knew what it was like to live through war. She knew what it was like to be hurt by men who had power. And she was mad because NONE of this was fair.
“We have to do something!” Zainab said as Amjad held her.
Kwao So, the next week, Zainab called several women’s groups, volunteering to support any projects they had with women in Bosnia and Croatia.
“Call us in six months,” one woman told her. “Maybe we will be doing something then.”
Six months? Zainab thought. But these women need help NOW!
So, Zainab came up with her own idea: She would make a sponsorship program for women survivors of war. Sponsors in the United States or other countries would send money each month for a survivor, and they would also write letters of encouragement.
Zainab and Amjad used the money they had been saving for their honeymoon to launch their new organization, which they called Women for Women in Bosnia — what would later become Women for Women International.
Kwao First, Zainab and Amjad toured Croatia, listening to survivors’ experiences. They heard what these women had been through, what they needed, what they dreamed about. There were so many difficult stories and it was hard…but hearing them only made Zainab more determined to help.
After asking for permission, Zainab shared these survivors’ stories, and soon, women around the world were signing up to be sponsors. Later, Zainab expanded Women for Women’s work, introducing support groups, micro-loan programs, and job training.
Zainab found herself giving her mother’s speeches to the women she met—sharing all the encouraging things her mother had ever said to her.
And these women gave Zainab strength and courage as well—courage to keep going and, eventually, to tell her own story.
Kwao As Women for Women grew, Zainab received numerous awards from governments, humanitarian organizations, and magazines.
She chanted at big rallies. She gave interviews and spoke at conferences. Still, even as she told other women’s stories, she kept her own secret.
Eventually, it all caught up with Zainab. She became very depressed. Sometimes she couldn’t stop crying. Other times, she felt numb.
Amjad convinced her to go to a therapist, who helped her deal with all the big feelings she had. Finally, Zainab decided to break her own silence. She wrote a book about the pain her family experienced under Saddam Hussein (the man she called Amo), surviving Iraq’s wars, and leaving her abusive husband.
Her book became a bestseller—and Zainab finally felt free.
Kwao After Saddam Hussein was captured in the early 2000s during yet another war, Zainab returned to Iraq—this time, to open a Women for Women office in Baghdad. There, in her grandfather’s old abandoned house on the Tigris River, she covered the floors with cushions. She gathered women together to talk about their lives, support each other, and work to build a better Iraq.
Zainab kept working as Women for Women’s CEO for many years. Under her leadership, the organization grew from helping 30 women in one country to serving more than 500,000 women in eight countries. Although Zainab left Women for Women International 2011, her vision lives on in the organization, which carries on in its mission of supporting women survivors of war.
Today, Zainab continues to advocate for women’s rights and human rights around the world by telling her own and other women’s stories.
“Every woman must own her story; otherwise we are all part of the silence,” she once said in an interview. “We must break the silence so we can echo each other’s voices. And so . . . that we may roar together.”
Zainab Salbi escaped tyrants. Forged her own path. Built her own future. She created a space for women to tell their stories. And when she did, it helped her to find the voice to tell her own.
Our stories have power. YOUR story has power.
And we will roar. Together.
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Executive Producer is Katie Sprenger.
This episode was produced by Camille Stennis. Corinne Peterson is our Production Manager.
This episode was written by Alexis Stratton. Proofread by Ariana Rosas. It was narrated by me, Philomena Kwao, who you will get to know better in Thursday’s episode!
Sound design and original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Final mix by Mattia Marcelli. For more, visit Rebel Girls dot com. Until next time, stay rebel!