The Ms. Q&A: Where Zainab Salbi’s Fight Meets Eleanor Roosevelt’s Legacy

Zainab Salbi witnessed the horrors of war firsthand growing up in Iraq; transformed by those experiences she founded Women for Women International in 1993, a grassroots humanitarian organization dedicated to serving women survivors of wars to rebuild their lives and move from crisis and poverty to stability and economic self-sufficiency. The Iraqi-American humanitarian, bestselling author, TV host and media commentator has since dedicated her life to supporting women around the world.

Under her leadership as founder and CEO from 1993 to 2011, the organization grew from helping 30 women to more than 478,000 marginalized women in eight conflict areas, and distributed more than $120 million in direct aid and microcredit loans impacting more than 1.7 million family members. More recently, Salbi launched her original series on Yahoo News, Through Her Eyes, and released her book, Freedom is an Inside Job. 

Salbi talked to Ms. after receiving the prestigious Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal on October 13—an award recognizing individuals who reflect Roosevelt’s desire to build a better world through humanitarian efforts—about her life’s work and what’s next.

How did growing up up in Iraq, during the reign of Saddam Hussein, impact you? What was it like?

It was defined by love and fear. My parents provided me as much love and hope as they could due to the circumstances. The family and the country were surrounded by fear of Saddam Hussein’s oppression and of war. 

Growing up in Iraq under Saddam was the opposite of freedom. You’re afraid to say anything. If you made a joke you could get executed. I had four friends whose fathers were executed. My parents would whisper in their bedroom or blast the radio really loud in the backyard and talk politics. That’s why I have such a deep appreciation of this country. You can speak about anything and no one puts you in prison or kills you. Literally! Freedom is like a taste of chocolate, it’s so delicious, it’s so beautiful, it’s so uniquely American. 

Coming of age during this regime inspired me to make the positive changes that I made. I’ve seen such darkness in the world, in my childhood and through my nonprofit work in war zones; execution, war and ugliness I don’t even like to talk about. You have a choice on how to react to life and I choose to appreciate life. I still get excited when I see acts of kindness. To me, it’s the opposite of the anxiety I felt growing up. I choose to see the beauty of humanity. The only way I could survive all the darkness I’ve seen is to put goodness out into the world. 

How has Women for Women International grown and changed since 1993—and what core mission still guides the organization’s work?

What started as a mom and pop organization founded by a 23-year-old and her supportive husband, ended up being an international women’s organization operating worldwide to support women in the most dire situations in conflict and post conflict areas. I couldn’t be prouder of the organization as we recently celebrated our 25-year history. Our new CEO Laurie Adams is charging ahead with more women to help. 

Women for Women International supports the most marginalized women in countries affected by conflict and war. Our programs enable them to earn and save money, improve health and well-being, influence decisions in their home and community, and connect to networks for support. By utilizing skills, knowledge and resources, women are able to create sustainable change for themselves, their families and their communities. 

First, we ask each woman to sponsor a woman survivor of war by sending her $30 for a year. The sponsored woman is than provided with two kinds of training through a circle of other sponsored women who receive the training in women’s centers in their area. Training includes vocational skills to give them the tools to work, business skills to give them the tools to manage their money, and educational awareness about their social, health, political and economic rights.

We believe access to education, plus access to resources, leads to lasting change in women’s lives. 

As a journalist, you’ve also been an active voice in the #MeToo movement. What do you see the future holding for this movement? 

We finally got the world to hear women’s cries once and for all. Now we need to show the world how to lead.

This is the time for women to lead in a way that is true to our core values rather than replicating patriarchal forms of leadership. I believe we need to light the path for truth and reconciliation and the path for fundamental institutional reform for the impact of the #MeToo movement to be long lasting and for generations to come. 

My call for action is that this is not enough. It’s great that we have more women CEOs and more women in Congress than before. But there’s more to do. Now we need to pave the path for a new way of being and a new way of leadership in the world that we are shaping based on us, not men. After centuries of patriarchy, what are our values and how do we want to lead?

My answer is with compassion, empathy and heart. These are the values that are important to me as a leader and not what I’ve been told and what I’ve witnessed. I explored these subjects in my PBS series #MeToo, Now What and in my recent article in Fortune Magazine.

What did receiving the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal mean to you? 

It is a huge honor and a reflection of the American values I so love and cherish. I am an immigrant, a Muslim and a woman of color. To receive this award in this particular time in the country warms my heart and makes me feel that the American values of acceptance and celebration of diversity are solid and strong. 

Eleanor Roosevelt stood up for the American values of fairness, equality and justice. She stood for the courage to speak up and to be who you are regardless of people’s criticism. Those, to me, are American values. Eleanor Roosevelt represents the America I know. For me to be receiving the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal as a naturalized American is the American value I know.

This country represents safety, and is home to me. When the Muslim ban happened, and with all the negative rhetoric that’s out there, it just shakes your foundation. The opposite of that feeling is getting the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal. That’s the America I knew all my life and that’s the America I ultimately know shall forever triumph.


Cheryl Sloofman is the Senior Account Executive at Impact PR and Communications.