New Internationalist

My uncle, the tyrant

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‘Uncle’ Saddam was a constant and sinister presence in Zainab Salbi’s childhood years. She grew up determined to fight injustice and to speak out – and went on to found humanitarian organization Women for Women International. Veronique Mistiaen met her.

Photo by Brian Hillegas under a CC Licence
Photo by Brian Hillegas under a CC Licence

‘I haven’t shown these before,’ says Zainab Salbi, flicking through photographs on her iPhone during a recent trip to London. ‘This is me,’ – she points to a teenager with dark curly hair, standing with her parents near Saddam Hussein. Another photo shows the former Iraqi dictator with her father, who was his personal pilot. The pictures are eerie. Saddam looks so normal – even jovial and friendly. ‘I called him “Amo” [Uncle].’ explains Salbi, who from the age of 11 had spent her childhood weekends at a farmhouse on Saddam’s compound. Her memories of Saddam’s dancing, laughing, cooking, fishing and wearing funny hats are interwoven with sinister ones – talks of repression, public executions and rape. ‘The uncle coexisted with the tyrant – sometimes simultaneously. We would be sitting in the dining room and he would tell us how he had just killed his best friend the night before. Saddam was like a poisonous gas leaked slowly into our life, choking us.’

'Saddam was like a poisonous gas leaked slowly into our life, choking us'

Living in fear in a gilded prison was one of three major influences that moulded the young woman into the person she is today. ‘It gave me the desire to fight injustice and speak out,’ – something she couldn’t do under Saddam’s shadow. Salbi, 41, is the founder and CEO of Women for Women International, a grassroots humanitarian and development organization helping women survivors of wars rebuild their lives.

The second formative influence in Salbi’s life was the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, which sensitized her to the plight of women in war. ‘Growing up in Baghdad, I saw that men fought war, but women held families together and kept life going. It is true all over the world.’

Zainab Salbi

And the third force in her life was her mother, who hammered into her the need to be strong and independent. ‘She pushed me forward. All this energy I have comes from her. She talked about war and injustice and their impact on women. She built my consciousness. At the age of 15, I had already decided I was going to work for women.’

Yet, when she was 19, Salbi’s mother sent her to the US for an arranged marriage. ‘I was furious. I didn’t understand why she would do that to me. It is only much later that I understood she did this to protect me from Saddam as I was becoming a woman.’ The marriage lasted three months.

A few years later, in 1993, Salbi – who had gone back to college in the US to re-do her undergraduate studies, learned for the first time about the Holocaust. At the same time, newspapers were full of reports of rape and concentration camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina. ‘The pictures were similar to the Holocaust ones. People had said: “Never again”, and yet it was happening again.

‘Growing up in Baghdad, I saw that men fought war, but women held families together and kept life going. It is true all over the world’

‘In Iraq, I had seen injustice and couldn’t do anything about it, but here, in the US, I had no excuses. I had to act.’ She tried to find an organization to work with women in Bosnia, but couldn’t find any. So in June 1993, Salbi and her new husband went to Bosnia with their honeymoon savings and a small grant from the Unitarian Church, and launched an organization that created ‘sister-to-sister’ connections between sponsors in the United States and women survivors of war in Bosnia.

‘I still remember the first woman I met, Aisha. She had spent months in a rape camp and was eight months pregnant. She couldn’t find her husband and young child. She was sitting there, crying and saying: “Everyone wants me to testify, but no-one has ever asked me if I needed help.” It was a turning point in my life. I knew this was what I was going to do with my life.’

Salbi returned to the US with a mission and at the age of 23, created Women for Women International (WFWI) with a shoestring budget and a small team of volunteers. Since then, the organization has grown to support more than 250,000 women survivors of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo. WFWI’s year-long programme covers economic and emotional aid, rights awareness, job skills training and small business development. ‘Women learn job skills and receive business training, so they can earn a living and move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency. They come to understand their rights and how to fight for those rights in their homes, their communities and their nations, and become leaders,’ Salbi explains.

Since 1993, the organization has distributed more than $80 million in direct aid and microcredit loans, and mobilized more than 125,000 women and men in 105 countries to reach out and support women survivors of war.

Salbi is also the author of two books: Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam and The Other Side of War: Women’s Stories of Survival and Hope. She is the recipient of the 2010 David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award and has received the Forbes Trailblazer Award and Time Magazine's Innovator of the Month Award.

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