Zainab Salbi founded Women for Women International in 1993 after seeing horrifying images of the Bosnian war in the American media. The grassroots humanitarian organization helps women survivors of war rebuild their lives through a one-year program that taps into women’s resiliency. Since its inception, Salbi has guided the organization to rehabilitate 316,000 women survivors and, ultimately, their communities. Women for Women International was awarded the 2006 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, becoming the first women’s organization to receive the honor. Salbi has been personally honored as one of Harper’s Bazaar’s 21st Century Heroines, the recipient of the 2010 David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award, and one of Newsweek’s Women Who Shake the World.

Edited interview excerpts follow.


Claudia Chan: How did your professional journey begin?

A: I saw a picture of a concentration/rape camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina on the cover of Time magazine. When I read the article about what was happening to the women in these camps, I knew I couldn’t continue in my life without doing something about it. I had grown up in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war and being there, I couldn’t do much about injustice for there were no rules to the Saddam Hussein regime and the simplest things could put one in danger. But when I learned of the war in Bosnia, I was in the United States and had the freedom to act and that is how I started Women for Women International.


CC:  Can you talk about your own personal view of overcoming adversity?

A: I learned early on in life that misfortune leads to fortune. Every mistake I have had or challenging time I went through has led me to become stronger and opened a new opportunity in my life. My life is full of stories like that, from being in an arranged, abusive marriage to going through very hard financial times and going through my mother’s illness and death. Each one of the challenges brought amazing lessons in life and I am grateful for them.

[box_light]ON MOTHER[/box_light]

CC:  What is the most valuable lesson your mother taught you?

A: Always be strong. Always be independent. Don’t let anybody talk to you or touch you in the wrong way. And no man should expect you to know how to cook or clean just because you are a woman! She also taught me that the best prayer is to smile every day and say “Thank you, God.” She told me that God is everywhere. In the air, in the trees, in the flowers… everywhere… so the “thanks” is to everything. And she told me that life is like a roller coaster; one day you are up and one day you are down. As long as you enjoy the whole ride, you will be OK.

[box_light]STARTING OUT[/box_light]

CC: What’s your best advice for young women?

Zainab Salbi in the Congo.
Zainab Salbi in the Congo.

A: Live your truth and your passion now and don’t wait to be true to yourself and your beliefs until later in life. It may be risky to live your truth. It may not mean the best job or the safer career. But if one has to take risks, it’s better to do it at the starting points of your life rather than the middle or the end. And when we are passionate about what we do, we will bring success to it simply because we are living our truth and our passion. So I would say, create the perfect job you want for yourself. Money and safety will come eventually with it but when it comes, it will be long lasting and with emotional satisfaction. Jump off the cliff and live your truth now.


CC: What simple things in life today bring you joy?

A: Everything brings me joy. Really. The sun brings me joy, flowers bring me joy, a fresh air brings me joy, being with women in Congo brings me joy (though it brings me pain too), eating oh… eating brings me much joy. Being in nature, in water, with friends, with loved ones, cooking, exercising… all of it brings me joy. Life is like an apple. We need to take each bite and enjoy the crunch, the juice, the texture, the sweetness, and all of it. Joy is everywhere!

Inspired by Zainab Salbi? Take a look at Claudia Chan’s other interviews with enterprising women.

Jane Wurwand on Redefining Skincare
Suparna Bhasin on Helping Women Find Their Calling
Dee Poku on Inspiring the Next Generation of Women Leaders
Bobbi Brown on the Business of Beauty
Joi Gordon on Dressing Disadvantaged Women for Success
Ingrid Vandervelt on Overcoming Self-Doubt and Empowering Others 
An Entrepreneur Turns a Passion for Cooking into an Cookie Empire