Zainab Salbi is an Iraqi-American humanitarian, entrepreneur, author, and media commentator who has dedicated herself to women’s rights and freedom. At the age of 23, she founded Women for Women International—a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war.
Under her leadership (1993-2011), Women for Women International grew from helping 30 women upon its inception to more than 370,000 in 8 conflict areas, leading to a distribution of more than 114 million dollars in aid and loans. Salbi is also the author of three books: the national bestseller “Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam” (with Laurie Becklund); “The Other Side of War: Women’s Stories of Survival and Hope”; and “If You Knew Me, You Would Care.” Her books received support from iconic women writers such as Alice Walker and from several celebrities including, but not limited to, Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, and Annie Lennox.
I Am Driven By | My passion and my beliefs! I am passionate about being in service to those who are marginalized, to those who are silent, and to those who are facing injustice. I believe from the bottom of my heart in the possibilities of hope and change within our lives and in our environments.
That purpose drives me every single day. It is the flame within me. I would rather die trying than live a life of comfort but in silence to my truth and my beliefs.
A Key Talent | Courage! I give myself the credit of having the courage to go beyond my fears and look them in the eyes, address them, and pass them by.
I can’t spell out the meaning of courage. If I have to summarize it, I will simply say that you must be loud and clear to yourself about what is it that you believe in and go do it. The courage to do that and move beyond the obstacles is always what leads to the fulfilment of one’s own dreams.
Principles I Live By | To be in truth to myself! My mission statement in my life is to always speak the truth, live the truth, and be in truth.
When we avoid seeing and acknowledging wrongdoings outside of us or inside of us, we invariably legitimize it and allow for the corruption of our own values. In other words, when we don’t live in truth, we allow for the corruption of who we think we are. It is much easier to point the finger at others around you–from colonialism in nations to thieves, liars, or what have you in the personal cases. The real work is for us to take action within our own voices and our own movements and acts.
It is easy to sit on the sidelines and comment on life and what is wrong with everyone else. It is much, much harder to walk the walk of life in truth. It entails confronting our own demons and our own participation in all aspects of life in its goodness and badness. The journey of truth is hard–very hard, indeed. It involves having the courage to take risks and recognize the worst in ourselves while confronting and maybe even hurting loved ones. Changing one’s lives and risking stability is hard but it leaves you with a sense of peace and calm inside, like delicious melting chocolate. That feeling of peace is an addictive one and it arrives every time I take a step towards the truth, as hard as that step may be. So the one principle I have committed myself to is always being in truth to myself and to others around me. I believe one can do that in the kindest and most compassionate way to oneself and to others.
Lessons I Have Learnt | I have learned that the cause I have dedicated myself to does not require me to sacrifice myself. Most people sacrifice themselves to whatever they are working on, thinking that is the way to show commitment. I did that for most of my life. But that always left me exhausted, empty and I felt as if I betrayed myself. When one finds the self in this state, you know you are sacrificing yourself and in that moment you are not consistent with the values you want to promote. In other words, in my case I have dedicated myself to women’s freedom, independence, and happiness. I can’t just advocate for these notions if I don’t live them for myself. But we are not taught to accept that for ourselves and to put all the energy out on advocacy. Well, I learned the long and painful way that if I want women to be free, I need to be fully free. And if I truly believe in women’s happiness and independence, I need to allow myself to be fully happy and independent, as well. Unless and until we live our beliefs, we are not in touch with ourselves and the world around us.
Dealing With Doubt | Of course I have been through many moments of doubt and fear. Every time I start a new step, be it in my personal or professional life, I experience fear and doubt as I walk through unexplored territories. I felt fear and doubt when I started Women for Women International when I was only 23 years old and did not know anything about the work or the country I started working in. I went through fear and doubt when I wrote my memoir and decided to tell my truth to the whole world without knowing how anybody would react to it and whether or not I would be killed for it. And just recently I went through a lot of fear and doubt as I embarked on a new journey focused on Arab women in the media. Each one of these steps entailed embarking on unchartered areas that I was not familiar with and each step required a leap of faith to do what I believe in even though I didn’t know what the outcome would be. In these moments of doubt, which often involved crying–lots of crying–in the privacy of my home or in some public street as I caught myself in a panic of “not knowing.” And I was always confronted with the simple question of either retreating from what I want to do and stepping back into something familiar and safe. But I knew something would die inside me, so I continue to pursue, take a risk, and get a chance at being in my truth even if I don’t know where I will land.
To keep myself going, I refer to my heart and see what resonates and what feels true and I keep on going. In times of fear, I become more observant to the signs around me–be it sharing with a friend, a stranger’s kindness, or a new flower blossoming. In such times my senses are heightened as much as possible, so I may see clearly if I am moving in the right direction or not. And the best remedy to fear is to do the exact opposite of it: which is to have fun. It is hard to do that but the only way to get some new perspective and a clear one is to go and do something very different. Perhaps take a walk in nature. Maybe play a game of ping-pong with a friend. Anything that gets your mind off from your fear and forces you to experience some joy and a smile can does wonder in getting clarity in times of hardship and fear.
The Meaning Of Life | I believe ultimately all that God asks of us is to show our full potential so that we may contribute the best and the most beautiful aspect of us to this existence on earth–to ourselves, other human beings, and to all animals and nature. Imagine if each one of us is free to be truly who we are? Imagine all the creativity, the beauty, the kindness, and the love we can share when we are free to express the fullness of who we really are.
I don’t know what the meaning of life is, really–especially as we witness so much war, greed and torture within ourselves and in society. When I see violence committed in God’s name, it breaks my heart one thousand times over for we violate God and ourselves all at the same time with violence.
I do know that love is bigger than all. And maybe–just maybe–the meaning of life is to experience the meaning of that fullness of love without torturing ourselves or each other. Maybe if we each get to the point where we are free to be who we are, and free to experience love without judgment, then we create a life of love on this earth. Maybe this is all a journey until we reach the true meaning of life.
Advice On Building Wealth | Richness and wealth can never be an objective in and of itself. Otherwise, you will find yourself empty even if you made all the money you crave. Start your journey with following your heart first. Act upon your dreams and your passion and you will live the life you want. And all the material things will come with that eventually. The calling of your heart should lead your desires. That’s when you can give the best of yourself and that’s when the money will follow. And, with that, peace inside of your heart.
I Am Inspired By | Alice Walker! For living her truth regardless of what other people thought or said. She is a woman of courage to have lived her truth at any given moment in her life.
The Legacy I Would Like To Leave | Frankly, leaving a legacy is not my priority and does not occur in my mind at all. I am living my life to be in truth to myself and my values every single day. In the scope of the universe and in front of the divine, I am nothing but a particle of sand. The day I die, this particle will be blown by the wind. People will either remember or they will not. Neither matters for even if people will remember, they will make meaning out of my life the way they want to make meaning out of it. I cannot be attached to the future, to the creation of meaning, and definitely not to the concept of legacy. I can only be in truth to myself and my beliefs and that is my commitment.