LET THE LIGHT IN Ac­tivist Zainab Salbi charts a course of pos­i­tiv­ity


InStyle (USA) - - Directory - Salbi’s book Free­dom Is an In­side Job: Own­ing Our Dark­ness and Our Light to Heal Our­selves and the World is out now.

Iwas 23 when I first read about the war in Bos­nia and Herze­gov­ina. News re­ports de­scribed con­cen­tra­tion camps where women were raped day in and day out for months at a time. I was hor­ri­fied and wanted to do some­thing to stop such atroc­i­ties. The prob­lem was, I had no re­sources. I had been liv­ing in Amer­ica for only three years af­ter em­i­grat­ing from Iraq to flee Sad­dam Hus­sein’s regime. My fam­ily had stayed be­hind. My new hus­band and I were stu­dents with very mea­ger fi­nances. Yet I still felt com­pelled to help.

When I was grow­ing up in Iraq, fear dom­i­nated my life—fear of speak­ing my mind and up­set­ting the gov­ern­ment, Big Brother, which could be watch­ing me at any time. Liv­ing in Amer­ica meant that I was free to act, speak, and do what I be­lieved in for the first time. I could not take that free­dom for granted.

I de­cided to join protests against the geno­cide in Bos­nia. It felt great to chant slo­gans about peace and lib­er­a­tion with thou­sands of strangers. But by the third de­mon­stra­tion I re­al­ized I had to do more than just march. So, in 1993, I started the non­profit Women for Women In­ter­na­tional and asked for do­na­tions. By giv­ing a Bos­nian woman $30 a month and a let­ter or pic­ture, U. S. spon­sors were able to forge a friend­ship and cul­ti­vate a thread of hope.

I had no idea who would re­spond to my call or whether any­body even cared. But soon after­ward, strangers be­gan show­ing up out of nowhere. Lo­cal churches, schools, and syn­a­gogues in­vited me to speak about the Bos­nian War and asked how they could help those af­fected by it. Once I had 30 spon­sors, I set out to per­son­ally de­liver their money and let­ters to women in refugee camps at the Bos­nia- Croa­tia bor­der. The women I met there had gone through un­speak­able hor­rors. But in their sad­ness and trauma, I also saw gen­eros­ity and beauty. One refugee of­fered me pre­cious fresh wa­ter that she had kept hid­den un­der her bed. It was all the wa­ter she had had. An older woman told me about car­ry­ing her hus­band on her back as they es­caped a bomb­ing. Even­tu­ally, I re­al­ized that, in­deed, war shows us the worst of hu­man­ity, but it also shows us the best. I wit­nessed beau­ti­ful souls re­sist not with guns but by keep­ing hope, gen­eros­ity, and kind­ness alive. Now, 25 years later, Women for Women In­ter­na­tional has dis­trib­uted $120 mil­lion in aid and loans to 480,000 fe­male sur­vivors of war in Europe, the Mid­dle East, and Africa. Each time I visit a new coun­try think­ing I am there to help its women, I quickly see how they are there to help me too. Con­golese women taught me how to dance when I took my­self too se­ri­ously. Afghan women taught me how to shape my eye­brows. And Bos­nian women taught me that red lip­stick can make a woman feel pow­er­ful. At 23, I thought I was on a mis­sion to change the world. Now I re­al­ize that go­ing into war-torn coun­tries has changed me. My work has taught me to ap­pre­ci­ate beauty and kind­ness in peo­ple no mat­ter what pain they are go­ing through. These days, when I read hor­ri­ble news, I search for the peo­ple, the women in par­tic­u­lar, who are do­ing ev­ery­thing they can to ac­tively bring good­ness back into this world. That is the tri­umph of hope.

War shows us the worst of hu­man­ity, but it also shows us the best.”

Salbi in the Demo­cratic Re­pub­lic of the Congo

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