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Group Honored for Easing Plight of World's Women

After fleeing Iraq in 1991, Zainab Salbi began an effort to provide job training and financial support for those in war-ravaged areas.

September 21, 2006|Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writer

Zainab Salbi was 11 when her father became Saddam Hussein's personal pilot and her family's happy home life abruptly ended. The family was forced into close companionship with the dictator, accompanying him on trips and often dining at his table.

"Being close to the devil is not a good thing," Salbi said. "It makes you that much closer to danger. You could actually be sitting at a dining table with him and talking about normal things and he would suddenly talk about how he killed his best friend the other night."

As Salbi got older, Hussein began to eye her, and her mother sent her to the United States in 1991 to escape his attention. Then the first Gulf War ensued.

Within two years, Salbi started an organization dedicated to helping women in war-ravaged countries rebuild their lives. It was a deeply personal endeavor because, before leaving Iraq, she had lived through the war with Iran, losing neighbors and friends as bombs fell on their homes.

Last week the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation honored the group's achievements, announcing that Women for Women International would receive its $1.5-million annual prize, which it calls the world's largest humanitarian aid award.

"From the jurors' perspective, they were extremely impressed: The main thrust of the prize is to alleviate human suffering, and when you look at the suffering that these women -- women who have been subjected to rape, to ethnic cleansing, many times losing their children, their husbands, their homes -- no one can dispute that the suffering is extreme," said Judy Miller, vice president of the Hilton Foundation and director of the prize.

In Iraq and the other eight countries where the Washington, D.C.-based Women for Women International operates, the nonprofit works to maintain women's rights on the most basic level: the right to leave their homes, to drive, to be free from rape, to learn to read, to work.

In wartime, women often exchange one set of fears for another, said Salbi, 37.

For example, under Hussein, women had the freedom to dress however they chose, to drive and attend schools of their choice, but they lived in constant terror of the dictator's whims and erratic desires.

"Saddam was like a poison gas breathed into our houses," she said. "We breathed him slowly and we died slowly. They gave us fear as an injection: To wear a head scarf or not wear a head scarf was not an issue, it was your choice. But you could be in a restaurant and someone from Saddam's family could like you, and you would have no choice but to be raped that night."

Women have lost old fears with the dictator's removal, Salbi said, but they are also losing former freedoms.

"Right now, 20 of my friends -- these are women I know personally -- have been assassinated," Salbi said. "One of them was a pharmacist. They dragged her out of the pharmacy and they assassinated her" after forcing her to put on a head scarf.

Fourteen years after the group was founded, 70,000 women have been helped by Women for Women International, and $28 million in cash has been disbursed directly to those most in need. In addition to providing job training and financial support, the organization offers emotional support by connecting women in war-ravaged areas, including Sudan, Rwanda and Afghanistan, with women around the world who sponsor them for $27 a month. Participants who are sponsored enroll in a one-year program that helps them evolve from victim to survivor to active citizen.

In awarding the prize, the foundation looked for efforts that had long-term sustainability, Miller said. The group would "help first the immediate needs" but then give women "the wherewithal to rebuild their lives in a very practical way, with micro-loans and training."

The prize money, Salbi said, will be part of a $6-million campaign to build 40 havens for women in nine countries. The financial reward is gratifying, she said, but for the nine women directors running the program around the world, the foundation's acknowledgment of their hard work is equally meaningful. When she telephoned them to give them the news, Salbi said, they cried.

Based in Los Angeles, the Hilton Foundation was created in 1944 by the hotel entrepreneur for whom it was named to help disadvantaged people without regard to religion, ethnicity or geography. The foundation is not part of the Hilton Hotels Corp.

Other prize recipients include Massachusetts-based Partners in Health, Heifer International of Arkansas, African Medical and Research Foundation of Kenya and Doctors Without Borders of France.

In town to receive the award, Salbi met last week with a high-voltage group of Southern California women -- activists and artists, philanthropists, politicians, authors and chief executives -- to share the stories of women around the world and inspire others to activism.

Most of the women at the Spago lunch were members of a low-key, high-powered circle called the Trusteeship for the Betterment of Women.

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