Country of origin: Iraq
Year came to U.S.: 1990
Education: BIS, Sociology and Women’s Studies, George Mason University; MS, Development Studies, London School of Economics
Organization: Women for Women International (1993)
Headquarters: Washington, D.C.
2019 revenue: $25.6 million
Worldwide employment: 400
An arranged marriage to a stranger brought Zainab Salbi to the U.S. just weeks before Iraq invaded Kuwait.
President Bill Clinton remarked of her, “What makes Zainab one of the most inspiring women I’ve met isn’t her amazing personal story but what she’s done with it.”
Zainab Salbi’s father was the personal pilot of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The family was always under close scrutiny. It was a fearful, suffocating way to live. When an offer of marriage came from a stranger living in the U.S., her mother saw it as the only way to find freedom and asked her to say yes. Salbi accepted. A few weeks after she arrived in the U.S. in 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and Salbi lost all communication with her family and friends.
Salbi’s life changed again in 1993 when she read about women in rape and concentration camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She was so moved she felt she must do something to help. Frustrated by the lack of action from relief agencies, Salbi and her second husband flew to Croatia on their own and spent months helping women survivors. One survivor of the rape camps who had lost her husband and children in the Bosnian War said, “I thought the world had forgotten us.”
Out of that experience, Salbi and her husband launched Women for Women International. In 1995, a day before he signed the Dayton Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia, U.S. President Bill Clinton held a ceremony for Salbi and her husband. “I was only 25, but that’s when people stopped laughing at what I was trying to do,” Salbi said.
Since 1993, Women for Women International has helped more than 478,000 women survivors in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Kosovo, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Jordan. It has distributed more than $120 million in aid and microcredit loans, offered rights awareness training, vocational skills education and small business start-up assistance, impacting more than 1.7 million people. It also stepped up to provide trauma-informed medical care during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In 2011, Salbi stepped back from Women for Women International to promote inspirational messages for women through media and has since launched several television series. Salbi is also the bestselling author of Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam (2006), The Other Side of War: Women’s Stories of Survival and Hope (2006), If You Knew Me You Would Care (2013) and Freedom Is an Inside Job (2018). She was named by Newsweek and The Daily Beast as one of the “100 Extraordinary Women who Shake the World” and by Foreign Policy Magazine as one of the “100 Leading Global Thinkers.”
Discover more extraordinary female immigrants in the blog post Eight Famous Women Immigrants in the United States. Learn more about how immigrant entrepreneurs give back in the blog post Immigrant Entrepreneurs Embrace Social Responsibility.
Updated July 2022