Founder Of Women For Women International To Speak At Rice University Commencement
Zainab Salbi, founder and CEO of Women for Women International, will speak at Rice University’s 96th commencement May 9. And for the first time, Rice will present an award in the commencement speaker’s name to a graduating student whose work best serves the humanitarian issues represented by the speaker.
Salbi founded Women for Women International in 1993 to provide women survivors of war and civil strife with awareness of their rights, financial aid, job training and leadership education – all to help them rebuild their lives and evolve from victim to survivor to engaged citizen. The organization has served more than 153,000 women in nine countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Our students and faculty share Ms. Salbi’s passion and commitment to eradicate social injustices and contribute to a better world,” Rice President David Leebron said. “As our graduating students take the next step in their lives and become community leaders, this is an especially meaningful time for Ms. Salbi to share her example of leadership and message of service and hope.”
Leebron commended the students who served on the commencement speaker selection committee for “nominating someone who has made a real difference in the world even if she is not a household name. She is just the kind of inspirational role model our students should learn from as they leave Rice to assume broader roles in the world.”
Biochemistry and Cell Biology Professor Mike Gustin, who chaired the speaker selection committee, said the students initially considered a variety of potential speakers, including celebrities, but were drawn toward people who have made exceptionally strong contributions to improving the world. “Zainab Salbi jumped out at us,” he said. “She is a very well-recognized philanthropist who has continued to make a strong impact in helping to rebuild the lives of women and their communities in a wide variety of countries disrupted by armed conflict.”
Gustin said Ian Feldman, an undergraduate on the committee, came up with the idea of creating an award named in honor of each year’s commencement speaker to acknowledge a graduating student who has demonstrated a commitment to similar humanitarian efforts. Both undergraduate and graduate students are eligible.
Salbi’s efforts have motivated tens of thousands of women to join her movement to rebuild communities after war, as she said, “one woman at a time.” Salbi is a survivor of war herself. She grew up in Iraq, where her father was chosen to serve as Saddam Hussein’s personal pilot. She was later sent by her mother to America for an arranged – and abusive – marriage. Stranded in America by the Gulf War, Salbi’s forged a new identity, started her life over and founded Women for Women International. She reflects on everything she endured in her memoir, “Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam.”
Her most recent book, “The Other Side of War: Women’s Stories of Survival and Hope,” reports about other women who overcame the horrors of war and rebuilt their families and countries.
Rosemary Hennessy, director of Rice’s Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality, said Salbi has brought women war survivors to the world’s attention. “Women for Women International is a lifeline for women around the world who have endured the trauma of war – rape and other injuries and torture – and provided them with resources to repair their lives,” she said.
“Just as important, Women for Women demonstrates that awareness translated into action can make substantial change and forge solidarity across national boundaries,” Hennessy said. “The choice of Zainab Salbi as graduation speaker aligns Rice with the urgent and timely principle that understanding women’s history, the other side of war, is crucial to the collective process of recovery and peacemaking.”
Time Magazine named Salbi “Innovator of the Month” in March 2005 for her pioneering work, and she received Forbes’ 2005 Trailblazer Award. In 2006, Women for Women International received the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, regarded as the world’s largest humanitarian award. President Bill Clinton honored Salbi at a White House ceremony, and she has been featured on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” multiple times.
Salbi has a master’s in development studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a bachelor’s degree in sociology and women’s studies from George Mason University. She serves as a Young Global Leader for the World Economic Forum and is a member of the International Women’s Forum.