Zainab Salbi. Writer, activist, social entrepreneur. A woman for women. An agent for change.
In so many ways, what you witnessed as a young girl in Iraq set a course for the life we honor today. War and violence framed your daily experience, as did your family’s unique relationship with Saddam Hussein during his rise to power. Your father was his pilot, so you grew up as part of Saddam’s inner circle—a disquieting place to be. But you took the skills you learned from your mother and the secrets you needed to survive, and went on to shape a world in which you would flourish. An escape from tyranny paved with a glimmer of hope.
You came here, to this country that was not your own, without family or money, but with clear eyes and determination. At just 23 years of age, you harnessed the noise of your past and your vision for the future to found Women for Women International, a humanitarian organization dedicated to women survivors of war. Since 1993, it has offered support, skills, and solidarity to hundreds of thousands of marginalized women for whom upheaval is the norm, giving them a chance to alter their own lives and, in turn, society as a whole.
In 2015, you launched Nida’a, an innovative talk show dedicated to celebrating the dreams and contributions of Arab women by breaking silence in a quest for truth. You have given voice to those we would otherwise never know and to familiar faces who have something bold to say, with no topic off limits. In your interview with Oprah, her first in the Arab world, you touched on a warning we all can heed—you cannot give fully if you sacrifice yourself. Then, last November, The Zainab Salbi Project was born. In collaboration with Huffington Post and AOL, you travel the globe to continue your courageous and inspiring work.
There is always a conflict to lessen and a lesson to learn, and you are our champion… our witness. Therefore, on behalf of my classmates who are ready for anything, it is an honor to present the 2017 Barnard Medal of Distinction. Like you, we will resist, persist, and support one another in pursuit of a more loving and peaceful world.