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.