Looking Beyond Despair

Looking Beyond Despair

Zainab Salbi: Changing the World, One Woman at a Time

By Stephanie Heuer

When I drove up to my parent’s home in Sunnyvale, California in late November of 2001, the rain was streaming down and my windshield wipers were only partially functional. I realized I was in the midst of a torrential rainfall.

I had just tuned into the radio station KPFA, and the “Living Room” segment was offering an oasis of thoughtful commentary following the explosive events of September 11th. Little did I know that the forthcoming interview with Zainab Salbi, originally from Iraq and founder of the Women for Women International organization, would take my life in a completely new and intense direction. Thank God for downpours!

Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International

Zainab Salbi, who had just returned from Afghanistan, was discussing her philosophy of compassion—leaving no woman behind, and changing lives one woman at a time. Her voice was tranquil, almost soothing, as she began her moving narrative of how she had founded the organization in 1993. The discussion focused on what could be done now, at that moment, to bring immediate relief to some of the woman who had become instant refugees in the Afghan region. They were caught in the crossfire and fury of a new war, our war, in Afghanistan. I listened intently and felt compelled to actively involve myself. The approach was simple—direct monthly support. There was an important catch though, letter correspondence. The thought of actually having a sister in Afghanistan, someone I would be able to directly help and correspond with, intrigued me.

As the interview came to a close, I quickly jotted down the website (www.womenforwomen.org). The next day I made a call, asked questions, and wrote my check. From that moment I became a sponsor for Malay, an Afghani woman from a family of eight children, currently living in a Peshawar refugee camp in Pakistan. My letters to her are translated at the field office, and her letters to me are translated through an interpreter (78% of Afghan women are illiterate), and relayed back to me via the main office in Washington D.C.. I received my first letters from Malay (one in her original Farsi and one in English) in January 2002, along with a photo. It meant so much to me that she had received my contribution and her simple words touched me deeply.

“Regards and honor to my sister Stephanie. Hope your health is ok. Hope God gives you good health. 20$ you send me as I was sick I spend it for my treatment and bought some medicine for my self. I’m thankful. Hope you help us and don’t forget us. I need your help. Wish you success in every part of life.”

I try to write every month to Malay, although it’s not required. Zainab had mentioned in the interview how much the women looked forward to their letters. I often think about Zainab and her inspiring words, especially, “try to look beyond despair and see strength.” They are simple words, but somehow permanently etched in my mind. The more I thought about Zainab and her organization, the more I wanted to know the full story of how it began. In late April, I called Women for Women International located in the heart of Washington D.C., and arranged an interview with the founder, president, and woman behind the calm voice on that rainy November day.


One Woman at a Time

Zainab was born in 1969 in Baghdad, Iraq. Her father was a pilot who was often away in the U.S. or Europe, and her mother was a teacher. She led a very privileged upper-middle class life, with a fine home that she shared with her two younger brothers. Her family managed two vacations a year, had help around the house, and often celebrated at evening parties with friends and relatives in the parks of Baghdad.

Malay, Afghani woman in refugee camp, 2001.

Her mother’s influence was felt even more after her death, but Zainab remembers her as a witty, lively, joyful woman. Her mother always told her to be strong, very strong, and to never cry. To my surprise, her mother never taught her any domestic duties, such as cooking and cleaning, and instructed her not to do so. She told her early on that if a man married her, he should not expect her to do the chores, and he should provide for her accordingly. I was amazed at that, and asked if her mother cooked for the family. She laughed and said, “Only when my father was home, and he was there only a quarter of the time. When he was gone, we had a woman who came in and helped.”

Her mother and her friends would rotate semi-monthly ‘ladies parties’ at their homes. They would bring a potluck, and “drink, smoke, dance, and stay up until dawn.” It was their time, she said, a time to be as bad as you wanted. Zainab would often stay up with the women and watch them dance, and did they “belly dance!” Her mother was a beautiful dancer and Zainab would sit and watch the fluid movements, amazed. Some women danced in ordinary clothes while other would bring their own costumes, elaborate ones they had made or custom ones they had ordered. The memory of the dancing, singing and carrying on still shone in Zainab’s eyes as she told me of her mother’s ‘ladies only’ parties, which were typical during that time in Iraq.

The Iraq-Iran war began, and things got a little tougher. However, life still went on. “You just live with it. You go to a wedding one-day and a funeral the next. War becomes part of the fabric of everyday life and you ‘coexist’ with it, growing up with a certain amount of loss.” People still had parties, still sang in the parks, but occasionally one would see a coffin in the streets, and know the front line was out there somewhere, but not too close.

In late 1990, she and her parents came to the U.S. for a vacation and to visit relatives here. When her parents returned home, she was meant to follow a few weeks later but the Gulf War broke out. It came as a complete shock; the Iraqi people had heard rumors, but really never expected another war. Now it was impossible for her to return to her country, so she stayed with relatives in the Los Angeles area. She didn’t hear from her parents, and it soon became evident that she would have to stay in the States. She moved to the East Coast to further her education, as she was in her third year of college when she left Iraq. These were very difficult times, and communicating with her family was nearly impossible. When she did finally talk to them by phone, her mother only discussed what was in their wills, and told Zainab, “Always, be strong.”

While going to college in Washington D.C., she met and married her husband, Amjad Atallah, a Palestinian-American, who would later become a lawyer. A new war was emerging in Bosnia/Croatia, and Zainab read with horror and dismay that the Serbian Army was using rape as a weapon of war, destroying the social fabric of the community by defiling both Catholic and Muslim women who were forced to bear the children of their enemies. Zainab, dismayed by the news reports, was propelled into action. Newly married and using the money intended for their honeymoon, she and her husband flew to Croatia to meet with survivors of the camps.

When arriving, they met with a woman who told them of her horrific experiences in the camp, and her daily hell. Zainab and her husband sat and listened to her story for hours and then went back to their hotel room, held each other and cried through the night. They both knew at that moment that they couldn’t go back to their everyday lives. That night the concept of Women for Women International was born.

Afghani woman in traditional burqa, 2001.

Zainab had no experience in how to create such an organization, so when they returned to the States she contacted other organizations about their activities. She pounded the pavement and eventually got a commitment for a year from the All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington D.C., providing the necessary logistical support to launch Women for Women which would become the first nonprofit, humanitarian aid organization helping women in Bosnia through direct grassroots sponsorship.

They set up their first office in Amjad’s parents’ basement. Getting funds directly to the women was challenging, and Zainab had herself delivered money in the beginning until their field offices were operational. She soon realized that economic relief was just part of the solution, and she started focusing on training programs for women in local trades that would eventually lead to their economic independence.

This objective would become the core of her mission—not just to provide immediate financial relief, but also vital emotional support, helping women survivors know they are not forgotten. And though the funds are helpful for basic needs, she realized the women needed knowledge, tools and resources in order to move from a crisis situation into rebuilding normal lives. This additional goal of the organization impressed me. They weren’t there just to give money away, but had workable solutions so these women could move forward step by step, carving out some kind of a stable, self-sufficient future for themselves.

Leave No Woman Behind

Over the years Zainab’s organization has expanded to Rwanda, Nigeria, Kosovo, Bangladesh, Colombia, and most recently, Afghanistan. Right after September 11th, they were poised to help the women along the Afghanistan border. Thousands upon thousands were fleeing the tense and desperate situation, and at that point no one knew to what extent the war would escalate. These were extremely dangerous times for reporters, U.S. workers, aid providers, and anyone who came in or out of Afghanistan. WFWI (Women for Women International) had been working closely with a group called PARSA (Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Support for Afghanistan), headed by an American, Mary MacMakin.

Zainab felt strongly that now was the time to act. This was a window of opportunity that couldn’t be ignored, knowing that the window could be shut at any moment. She made the decision to go, but it was impossible to get into Afghanistan directly. All flights and direct routes were inaccessible, unsecured, and extremely risky. She decided the best way to work with, and provide the emergency direct aid necessary to the Afghan women, would be through her connections in Pakistan and the work that was already taking place there.

She went out to the border to see for herself the camps that seemed to be sprouting up daily, where tired and discouraged women, children, and injured men were barely surviving. The sights, smells, and sounds of human suffering were overwhelming, even to her. “I have seen the look of the walking dead on the tortured faces of women in Bosnia, Kosovo, Nigeria and Rwanda, and I saw ‘the look’ again when I visited Afghan women in refugee camps in Pakistan this past November. I met women who suffer unspeakable horrors everyday.”

When moving around the camps, she had to put on old peasant clothes and carry her video camera in a hidden place so no one would question who she was or why she was filming. By a stroke of luck, MSNBC happened to be in Peshawar, and picked up her story. The television crew went with her one day and documented the desperate conditions in the camps. The footage was aired upon her return to the U.S., which increased public awareness of the situation along the Afghan/Pakistan border, and publicized Zainab’s determined efforts.

Afghanistan currently is one of the poorest countries in the world and has one of the highest infant mortality rates and a shortened life expectancy. After twenty-three years of war and three years of drought, Afghan women have buried their husbands, parents, children and friends. Widows head 20% of Afghan households. They have lost their homes, their security and their livelihoods. Some women, out of desperation, have migrated to refugee camps to escape war, starvation and the daily indignities of life under Taliban rule. These women, our Afghan sisters, are exhausted and living on the margins of hope.

Zainab told me of one happy, shining moment. On a visit to a refugee camp near the Afghan border, she was invited to a home for a gathering. When she arrived, she and her escort were the only women in attendance. It was a simple place, but she was greeted as an important guest and served tea. Gathered around her were several different tribes from Afghanistan, who had come together from the local refugee camp. They had made instruments themselves, using whatever they could find, including a large oil container for a drum. They began to sing sacred Sufi songs, and did Sufi whirling. The sounds, the singing, and the beauty of it all mesmerized her. At that moment Zainab thought, Yes, there is joy, and the need to feel it, even when despair surrounds you.”

As of January, WFWI has provided nearly 200 women refugees and their families with food, clothing, blankets and other necessities. They have given seed grants for income-generating projects to move Afghan women from crisis to stability and self-sufficiency. They have also restored a women’s health clinic in Kabul, and opened a new field office in June. One significant, positive turn of events is the appointment of Dr. Sima Samar, who was recently named Minister of Women’s Affairs in Afghanistan, one of two women appointed to serve in the interim government. Dr. Samar, who is from the minority Hazara ethnic group, has advocated education for women and adequate women’s health care. To that end she established Shuhada (“martyrs” in the Dari language), an organization based in the small border town of Quetta in Pakistan. Dr. Samar faces numerous challenges, saying in the March issue of Outreach, “I have three strikes against me: I am a woman, I speak out for women, and I’m a Hazara, a minority group.” Her strong commitment to improving women’s condition and status in Afghanistan is yet another example of looking beyond the despair.

When I recently talked with Zainab, she had just returned from visiting her field offices in Bosnia. The pride she felt for the women there was palpable, even over the phone. She said that when she first sees the women and listens to their stories, they are victims, paralyzed by their severe situation. With the organization’s help, they move from being victims to survivors, eventually feeling somewhat whole again with the freedom to re-define their lives and reach their full potential. That is her vision, to ensure equality and justice for all, including economic, political, and social justice that has gender equality at its core.

I asked her, “Is there a reason to have hope, to feel you can make a difference in one person’s life; should we care?” She replied with that calm, soothing voice, “Absolutely, most definitely.” She told me stories of returning to the women in different countries where she has set up local support groups. After some time, when the women meet, they dance, or sing, or pray together. They begin to create again, weaving and painting, making a life for themselves beyond their despair. She said one would be surprised how strong, determined and resourceful these women are—given a chance, they do change the world. She said smiling, “If you give these women a nickel, they can easily turn it into a dollar or two!”

When Zainab and I ended our session in Washington D.C., I felt that I had been in the presence of an extraordinary and dedicated woman. She was humble, generous with her time and stories, and very clear about her goals. And as we parted, she said with calm conviction, “Together we will change the world, one woman at a time.” And I am happy to say that I believe her!

Stephanie Heuer (Safa) was first inspired to learn Oriental dance after watching a performance of the Bal Anat troupe at the Renaissance Faire in 1973. She studied with Aida al Adawi (Andrea Hughes) and Jamila Salimpour for the next five years. Other instructors or dancers who have greatly inspired her over the years are Shareen el Safy, Mona Said, Samasem, Suhaila Salimpour, and Sohair Zaki.

Her career pursuits in Computer Science lead her to Japan, where she spent two years teaching engineering analysis in Tokyo, Taiwan, and Seoul. She also served as the liaison between the Japanese and their American counterparts. Working for Hewlett Packard over a ten year period, she had a variety of responsibilities, including computer programming, technical writing, and eventually a management position in World Wide Data conversion for the first CD roms released in the late 1980’s. She has lived in Japan, Korea, Bonaire, Venezuela, and the Cayman Islands. She recently returned to California after spending eleven years in Norway, where she taught dance, sponsored workshops and wrote for dance publications. She is currently an active member of the Women for Women Organization in the San Francisco Bay Area. dignityrocks@gmail.com

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

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