I'm reading
Zainab Salbi is a humanitarian
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Zainab Salbi is a humanitarian
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Zainab Salbi is a humanitarian
Pass it on
Pass it on
"When you’re sad, you’re sad, and when you’re in pain, you’re in pain. I don’t believe that there is a hierarchy over pain."
1 April 2013

Zainab Salbi is a humanitarian

Interview by Sofija Stefanovic
Photography by Anna Wolf

Sofija Stefanovic on Zainab Salbi

In the gruelling arena of peace building, Zainab Salbi is a bit of a big deal. Not long after she came to America she started Women for Women International, an organisation dedicated to helping women in war. Bill Clinton has nominated her for humanitarian awards and Oprah’s a huge fan.

As I suspected Zainab is pals with Abigail Disney—the gutsy activist I interviewed back in issue 32. The two of them are making a film about women in the Arab Spring and I have a feeling it will be great. Zainab’s latest book If You Knew Me You Would Care features stories and portraits of women in war zones (with a foreword by Meryl Streep), so you could say I was interviewing one of the world’s humanitarian superstars.

Yet researching for this interview put me in a rut. I come from Serbia and the Yugoslavian war is why we left. This was the same time Zainab arrived in America, heard about the rape camps in Bosnia and began her charity work. Even after everything, to me, those who speak my language are “my people”, and that includes Serbs, Croats and the Bosnian Muslims featured on the Women for Women site, talking about the nightmares they endured.

So, back in the 1990s, Zainab went over to Bosnia to help women, while my family watched the news in horror: our people murdering each other in the streets in what was known as the “brother-killing war”.

Bosnia was just the start of Zainab’s charity work. Browsing the Women for Women International site I learn that war has left two million Congolese rape-survivors and 85 per cent of Afghani women with no access to education. I wanted to help someone, but who was I supposed to choose? A South Sudanese woman who has a one in seven chance of dying in childbirth? A Bosnian woman, with whom I feel a cultural alignment, whose family may well have been killed by Serbs? I found myself making lists: who is the most needy? Is it better to help the most disadvantaged or someone with a better chance of survival? Catching myself ranking people according to misery left a horrible taste.

So by the time my interview with Zainab came along I wasn’t in top form and I told her so. Zainab didn’t seem to mind that a puffy-faced interviewer from Australia insisted on talking about herself first. In fact, I soon discovered that Zainab thinks sharing stories is our salvation.

This story originally ran in issue #35 of Dumbo Feather

SOFIJA STEFANOVIC: So, Zainab, I wanted to mention that I come from Serbia. And yesterday I was reading up on the women you worked with in the former Yugoslavia.


I cried so much!


It made me so sad.


How do you manage? All these women in war zones are talking about the most terrible things. How do you manage without crying for hours, like I did?

Well, I went through stages. There was a stage where I was very upset. I would cry all the time and deprive myself of joy.

This story originally ran in issue #35 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #35 of Dumbo Feather

I thought: how can I be happy when there are other women suffering?


And then I collapsed. And I realised that this doesn’t help me and it doesn’t help them either. I realised that my own happiness is part of the work. I came to the conclusion that the cause does not require me to sacrifice myself. I’ve been doing this work for 20 years and it’s still a struggle. Sometimes I think I’m okay and then I re-read the women’s stories and I start crying again.


But I would worry about myself if I didn’t cry. If I stopped crying — I wouldn’t want to be that person. I think it’s okay to feel it. It’s an ongoing process. But I find that the more solid I am in myself the more I can do the work.

Do you think that you are more resilient than other people?

I have no idea. No. I think that the women who survive these wars are the most resilient ones. I am in awe of the women I write about. And their resilience isn’t only about staying alive. They are the ones who taught me to enjoy life, frankly.


It was in Congo and Rwanda that I started dancing for the first time in my life, it was in Bosnia that I learned to put on make-up and pay attention to my clothes and it was in Afghanistan that I started paying attention to my eyebrows and how my upper lip hair grows! So, not only are these women resilient in terms of surviving and keeping on going, but they also have those soft aspects of resilience, which is in beauty and in joy. I think resilience is built into all of us. All of us will surprise ourselves to see how resilient we are.

I was looking at the eight countries you help on the Women for Women website. How did you choose them?

The first place was Bosnia. I’m not from the region and I’m not from Europe either. It was not the area, the language or the country that attracted me. There was something wrong and we had to do something about it. Then the Rwandan genocide happened so someone said, can you help Rwanda? So it happened in an organic way.

At the start, Women for Women was just me and my former husband and a few volunteers… and eventually it got bigger and bigger. So now we choose countries based on many different indicators.

And how do you work out what the “worst” country is, who’s most in need?

Not only is there no way to decide which country is worse than the other, but there is no way to decide which story is more miserable than the other.

Yes, that’s what I found reading the site.

Each story has its own merit and each pain has its own merit. When you’re sad, you’re sad, and when you’re in pain, you’re in pain. I don’t believe that there is a hierarchy over pain.

Zainab, you have an unusual backstory. You came to America when you were how old?


Can you tell me your history before that? I mean, obviously it’s very long and you’ve written an entire book about it …

[Laughs] usually, when people ask me I say, go read the book, but you’ve already beat me to that sentence!

I want you to talk about it, because your story’s fascinating!

You know, up until I published my memoir, I had no idea that my life was different to others’.


I wrote my book and that’s when I realised: Oh, I have a unique story. But I didn’t grow up thinking that I have a unique story. It’s just my story. Just like your story has its own uniqueness.

I would say that there are three main things that influenced who I am. One is the Iran–Iraq War. At a young age, I had a consciousness of what war meant, an understanding at a very young age:

Men fight war and women keep life going in the midst of war.

It was my mother who kept us going while my father was travelling or on the front line.

Two is that I had a very, very strong mother. She said I had to be independent and strong and I should never let any person touch me or talk to me the wrong way. And no man should expect me to know how to cook or clean just because I am a woman. So she embedded her strength in me. The third influence which really took a long time to heal from — and I hope to say that I am okay now, but you never know — is knowing Saddam Hussein.

Yes, tell me about that.

My father was his pilot. And more than that, we were his friends. He asked my family to be his social friends, because they were not political so they were no political threat to him. So that’s a big part of me. Being so close to Saddam.

You know, the devil is a fallen angel. There was an aspect of Saddam that was normal; we cooked together and went fishing and swimming. But there is an aspect in which he is a horrifying man and a horrifying dictator. He killed his loved ones, relatives, best friends and lovers. In many ways I saw him as a poison gas leaked into our home. We breathed him slowly. Living in Iraq under Saddam was like living in fog. The fog was fear and that fear was always in front of you but you couldn’t touch it. Being close to him meant that we were much closer to that fog. That had a huge impact on me personally, in terms of knowing darkness and fear and the impact of dictatorships on the psychology of people.

I bet.

I find myself at an age where I am grateful that I have gone through all of this; grateful to have known fear and to have known a dictator; grateful to have known violence, displacement, poverty, richness, love and abandonment. When I sit with women in wars and they tell me what they have gone through, I find myself very grateful to have known these feelings because it helps me connect with them. For a long time, I held that inside and it tormented me in many ways. I hope that I’m okay now. That I can be grateful for it and not have it touch me.

I feel that women are so important in our understanding of what’s happening in war. What do you think?

Yes and I think of women as a bellwether for the direction of society. We have to notice what happens to women as it tells us about society at large. We women are like the soft skin of the body. And often a disease enters through the softest parts between our fingers. And we don’t notice it. That’s how I see women. An example: Afghanistan, the Taliban. The first thing they did was start regulating women. And no one payed attention. They thought, ‘it’s just women’. And eventually, it impacted men, children, America and the whole world.

Are you saying that’s a conscious thing that the Taliban did? They purposely went for women so they could control the entire society?

Starting with women is the easiest entry. I don’t think it’s a sophisticated political strategy. Women are low hanging fruit. The whole world looks in the other direction. And then eventually, it hits us all in the face.

In your new book, If You Knew Me You Would Care, you asked women about their definitions of war and peace. What did they say?

Women define peace as not only the ending of fighting, but as building life, being able to visit each other, as having food, schools, jobs, bicycles, cars, homes, electricity — all of these things. So they immediately give complexity to the concept of peace, because they are keeping life going during war. It is the women in war who are taking their kids to school, keeping the economy going, keeping the hospitals and schools open. They have a very big practical input here. So that was one of my objectives with this book. But the other real objective of this book is: I wanted to connect with these women.

You know, when we see women in war, we see them afar. Someone in Australia could not associate with a Congolese woman whose leg got cut off after she was raped or an Afghan woman who was isolated in her home. These are different cultures, languages, religions, everything. Yet, these women are human beings and they have more in common with us than anyone thinks at the first look. What I ultimately wanted, besides the definition of war and peace, was to know their love stories. I wanted to get their sense of beauty and their hopes and dreams.

Each one of us was a child who had dreams, we had a favourite toy or game, we fell in love and our heart tickled. Each one of us has been betrayed or been in a bad relationship. All these are human stories. When we just say, ‘this woman has been raped’, it’s very hard to connect with her, because we think, I don’t understand who she is. All I know is a woman has been raped.

But what if I tell you that this woman wanted to be a doctor when she was a kid? Her father died when she was 13 and she couldn’t afford to continue school, so she dropped out to work to help her mother survive. And then at 16 she fell in love. She was a beautiful woman and the first boy she had a crush on had a crush on her. Little by little they met up at the church and then they got married.

They were beautiful and happy and had one child after the other, and boom, after five years the war happens. Her husband starts drinking. And as he keeps drinking he becomes distanced from her and he starts beating her up. He beats her up so badly one day that when she goes to the hospital they refuse to treat her until she reports who beat her up so badly. And when she tells them, the police take him to the prison. When she gets out of hospital and he gets released, he doesn’t want to see her face, because he’s so mad at her for reporting him. And that’s when her displacement starts. He sends her out to her family with the kids and she loves him still. She’s bitter and angry and she starts rebuilding her life and then a soldier rapes her walking in the street. That story could be any woman’s story. There is the love story, the hope, the dreams, the betrayal, everything. And when I tell you she is in Congo, it becomes a secondary thing.

That must be empowering for the women as well, right? Even if you’ve been in a horrible situation, you’re still you. And I imagine that’s what keeps women going in such traumatic situations—talking about their dreams.

Very, very, very much. And working with a photographer, Rennio Maifredi, who is not a war photographer, but a fashion photographer, shed another light on this situation. He set up his own studio wherever we went, with flashes and a white background. And the women would stand in front of him. They revealed a new element of themselves when they were put in front of someone who wanted to see their beauty.

For example, we were in Srebrenica. And we were with a group of women who were farmers. A woman came skipping from the makeshift studio and said, ‘I have seen so many things in my life. I have seen poverty. I have buried my father with my own hands, I have been a refugee, I have been hungry, but today, I am a fashion model!’ It was so beautiful that someone saw her for the beauty that’s inside her and not as the poor refugee or displaced person with a horrible story.

You talk a lot about how women shouldn’t be seen as victims. But in the end, they often are victims in war. So what can we do about men’s side of things?

How can women affect men in war? How can women affect men in war? Oy … That’s a very good question. No one asked me that before [laughs]. Can I tell you something? I started my journey thinking women are exclusively the victims, but 20 years later, I have met some wonderful men and some wonderful women and I have met some horrible men and some horrible women. So it’s not a simple narrative. Now, the majority of women are victims and the majority of aggressors happen to be men. For me it’s much more about this:

We women need to own our story, because sometimes, we advocate some of the horrors that happen. We owe it as mothers and sisters to put a stop to it.

It’s not a straightforward story with women and men, in my opinion.

Because women are giving birth to men? And bringing them up?

There are more stories than one would want to know of women encouraging their men to fight the enemy and rape and pillage. It’s not an exclusively victim story.

So does education and knowledge help?

For this last book, I was asking, ‘What is the secret sauce that will turn women’s lives around? Is it getting access to education? Is it getting access to a job?’ And my Bosnian colleague Saida said, ‘Zainab, the secret sauce is inspiration. The magic of turning a woman’s life around starts when a woman is inspired by someone else’s story. To know that there are possibilities of change in her own life.’ That was like a light bulb in my head. I realised every woman I’d talked to changed her life because she heard another woman’s story. And that inspiration came from a neighbour, gossip, radio, TV, a book — any kind of storytelling.

If you are raped, you think it is only you who it’s happened to. If you are beaten up you think it is only you, if you are molested you think it is only you. We are isolated in our stories — we do not share them because we are told it’s shameful and embarrassing. I came to the conclusion that the most important thing in our lives is to start breaking our silence. We need for each woman to tell her own story. Because in the process we pass on the message to women: ‘You’re not alone. I have faced this and overcome it.’

Rape and domestic violence keep happening. And we endure them as a society. So when we own our story, we kill two birds with one stone. We inspire other women to know that they are not alone and give a message to men and to the larger society: ‘Enough is enough. I am not gonna shut up and endure this violence in the name of honour and shame. I am gonna speak up and you are gonna have to endure the shame of what you have done.’

That reminds me of something the psychologist Philip Zimbardo said. I heard him speak about how you can help children deal with bullying and he said don’t encourage your child to be a hero and stand up to bullies alone. Instead you’ve got to encourage kids to make a group of good people. You encourage kids to talk about what’s wrong as a group and stand up to it as a group.

That’s beautiful. I absolutely believe in that. I think women need to create that community. In every way possible create that community to start building a safe haven where we can express ourselves and create a support system. I really believe it is time for us to shout and echo each other’s voices and not say, ‘She was raped, but not me. Or, she’s in Congo, but not me. Or, of course she was raped, she is poor, but not me.’

Unless we start breaking our silence we will never stop that vicious cycle of violence that has faced women for centuries now.

Who inspires you?

I never believe there is such a thing as ‘the one’ hero. There is my mother on one hand, not because she lived to her full potential at all, but because she planted the seed in me. She knew she couldn’t cross the river so she pushed me further. And I’m grateful for that, though I was angry with her for the longest time. My absolute best teachers in life, better than any school I went to or any book I have ever read, are the very women I thought I was helping.

I met a Congolese woman named Nabintu. When I asked her what peace means for her, she said, ‘Peace is inside my heart. No one can give it to me and no one can take it from me. And that child over there, I have out of rape. She is my future, she is my prophet, she teaches me how to love.’ That woman was locked in a room for three months and raped day in and day out. When she escaped and went to her husband, he abandoned her because he was ashamed that someone else slept with his wife. He sent her away with her three kids, while she was pregnant with the fourth. I honestly call her my Dalai Lama. I have tears in my eyes just thinking about it. I gave you one example, but I can give you so many. And they happen to be from the women who I think I’m helping — they end up helping me.

You mentioned before how important it is to take care of yourself. How do you do that?

Meditation and yoga are essential. Today I didn’t do either. I am really hoping that I can catch a yoga class tonight! I am so grateful to have the life that I have. I used to push myself to the edge. My advice to everyone: don’t push yourself. I take care of myself by saying ‘stop’ and trying to re-centre myself in my essence. If that means being with my loved one all weekend and not doing work, even though I have a pile of work, then that is the right thing to do. Because only when I am at peace can I perform well.

Every person has his or her own route. As long as we have space for our love, peace, happiness and laughter on a daily basis — that’s taking care of yourself. If you want to make a change in the world, then you actually have to be it, not only talk about it.

I have a couple more questions but I’ll be quick cause I don’t want you to miss your yoga class! [Laughs]. One: Do you have plans for the next few years?

You bet! After 18 years of running Women for Women International, as its CEO, I have decided to resign and start a new adventure in my life. Now all my focus is on the Arab and Muslim world, particularly on women. Working through the media in acknowledging Arab and Muslim women and their stories and showing the possibility of change from within the culture and religion. In Women for Women, it’s all about building big bridges between women — which I really believe in.

It’s one thing for us to communicate, you are in Australia, I am in America. Big bridge. But the bridge I need to work on is the bridge with my neighbours or with my family in Iraq. The small bridge is equally as important as the big bridge. It’s one thing to show Arab and Muslim women how Western women progress in their lives and accomplish things. But the change is not always going to come from the West — it’s important to show how change can come from within the Arab and Muslim culture. And that’s where I’m putting a lot of my passion and work.

What are you afraid of? If anything.

Mmm. Very good question. I mean, on the one hand, I’ve been up, I’ve been down, I’ve been up, I’ve been down — at the end of the day, I’ll be okay, [Laughs] hopefully! If I’ve survived everything I’ve survived so far, then, what’s the worst that can happen, right? You know — sorry, it’s making me emotional for some reason — there is fear and there is fear. There is fear on the surface level of my heart being broken. But as Rumi, a 13th-century Sufi said: ‘Oh break my heart, oh break my heart again … so I can love even more.’


So I want to avoid heartbreak, but I’m okay with it. I guess the other thing I’m afraid of is … my mum had Lou Gehrig’s disease, where your brain stays intact, but it paralyses your whole body. I saw my mum die through that disease. Yes, I am afraid of that. I am afraid of a thing that I very likely could get. Yet I saw my mum survive this in the most beautiful way. So I know I could as well. That’s probably what I am afraid of the most.

Thank you for being so honest … we’ve talked about all the things that you do to help the world. What can the rest of us do to help?

So many things! Oh boy. First, I believe you should own your story. It’s so basic. Start telling your story to people: if you get rid of your secrets, it will help. Only if we tell the truth can there be healing, not only on the individual level, but also on the collective level.

And help others not from the saviour/victim mentality, but from an empathetic perspective. If you haven’t done your own work, then you are asking for gratification, love and adoration, which is the last thing a victim who is suffering wants to give.

Okay. What else?

I believe that helping mother earth and animals is of equal importance. We each have our passions. We should all do something about making this world a better place. At the end of the day, a poor person needs to eat, a tree needs to be watered, plastic needs to be taken out of the ocean. We need to get our hands and feet dirty to do the work. So if you have money, give money — I don’t believe it’s only sentimental. You don’t have to be rich to help the world — we owe it to ourselves to share our resources.

And if we can’t decide where to put our money?

If you don’t have a passion and if you say Zainab, ‘Who should I help?’ I’d say, ‘Go help women!’ Because if there is one group of people living at the most critical time in history, who can actually change societies, it is women. I would say, ‘Help women in every way possible to stand on their feet. That’s my bet on how we protect and save humanity.’

When you said we should all keep telling our stories, you reminded me of a quote from Theodore Zeldin. He says, ‘The hidden thoughts in other people’s heads are the great darkness that surrounds us.’


Isn’t it? I guess it means that as we learn about others, the world becomes illuminated.

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! Fantastic.

So, you’ve made me think about how sharing our stories will make us all stronger.

Yes. It becomes an inspiration to another person. It’s your rope to the other person and they can hold it and they can get out of their darkness.

Oh, Zainab, you’ve been so inspiring and wonderful! I’d love to talk to you all the time!


But you have a yoga class to get to.

Pleasure, pleasure. Ah! Drago mi je, hvala puno. (Pleasure, thank you very much.)

Hvala i vama! Dovidjenja! (Thank you too! Goodbye!)

Following Sofija’s interview with Zainab, she signed up to sponsor a sister via random selection with Women for Women. Find out more at womenforwomen.org.

Sofija Stefanovic

Sofija is a Dumbo Feather contributor who’s interviewed the likes of Julian BurnsideAkram Khan and Abigail Disney. She lives in New York. She is writing a memoir called Miss ex-Yugoslavia (Penguin, 2018). She also hosts the literary salon Women of Letters in New York City.

Photography by Anna Wolf

Dumbo Feather has evolved, follow the journey by signing up for the Small Giants Academy newsletter