Founder, Women for Women International
Posted on: February 1, 2012 | Go to profile
When she saw a picture of a rape camp in Bosnia on the cover of Time magazine, Zainab remembered growing up in Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein and not being able to do anything about the injustice she encountered. Living in the United States during the Bosnian war, Zainab realized she had the freedom to act and committed herself to founding Women for Women International. The grassroots humanitarian and development organization helps women survivors of war rebuild their lives through a dynamic one-year program that celebrates women’s resiliency. Since its inception in 1993, Zainab has guided the organization to rehabilitate 316,000 women survivors and ultimately, their communities. For its work “alleviating human suffering” Women for Women International was awarded the 2006 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, becoming the first women’s organization to receive this honor. Zainab has also personally been honored as one of Harper’s Bazaar 21st Century Heroines, the recipient of the 2010 David Rockefeller Bridging Leadership Award, and named one of the 100 Extraordinary Women who Shake the World by Newsweek, along with many other outstanding accomplishments.
Q: Please share with us the story of how your professional journey began and has brought you to where you are today.
A: My professional journey started when 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 act and that is how I started Women for Women International.
ON Starting Out
Q: If you had a young sister or a daughter who was a senior in college, anxious about landing her first job or unsure of what she wanted to do, what would your advice be to her?
A: I would tell her 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. That’s what I would say.
Q: 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!
Q: It is a common saying that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. Can you share a story about a time when you experienced a mistake, and how you eventually came out a winner because of the lesson it taught you?
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.
ON Time Management
Q: Online calendars, emailing ourselves, post-it notes… I’m still struggling to find the best way to manage my time and to do list? What’s your method?
A: I follow Rumi’s advice, which is “Be Fully Present Wherever You Are.” This means that I cannot check my emails every second and sometimes I don’t check it for a day or two. If I don’t take ownership of taking care of myself, and my peace of mind, no one else can do it for me. And if I am overwhelmed all the time with emails and work with no space for me, then I lose all my good qualities and all my bad qualities come out when I am tired and overwhelmed. I and only I can take ownership of my time and that sometimes means that people will not get immediate responses from me and I hope they understand and respect my philosophy of time management. That means when I am with someone in a meeting or a task, I am fully present with them and when I don’t respond immediately, it is not personal at all. It simply means I have not had the chance to get to it yet.
ON Giving Back
Q: What cause(s) have you chosen to support and why does it resonate with you?
A: Women, Women, Women. I feel investing in women is a one-stop approach for most problems. From health to poverty, from education to food production, women are at the core of most needed solutions for the world’s crises. So I invest and dedicate all my life to serving women.
Q: What place in the world has the most sentimental value to you and why?
A: Temagami (North Ontario) the most wonderful place I know. I go there every year. It is my annual pilgrimage where I can be one with nature. I love it.
Q: 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 roll coaster; one day you are up and one day you are down. As long as you enjoy the whole ride, you will be OK.
Q: Which book(s) has had the most significant impact on your life and why?
A: The Essentional of Rumi by Colman Barks. I read it every day. For some reason, Rumi’s poems really speak to me in the diversity of what the poems address.