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For Women, Refugee Status Brings Special Risks


Zainab Salbi understands what it means to be homeless and living in a foreign country. Salbi is Iraqi, her father served as a pilot for Saddam Hussein. And in 1990, her parents arranged for her to marry a man in the United States. Hoping that by leaving Iraq, her safety would be guaranteed. But her new husband turned out to be abusive.

Ms. ZAINAB SALBI (President, Women for Women International): I ended up leaving the man after three months only of the marriage. Iraq had already invaded Kuwait at the time, and I was stuck in America with $400 in my pocket.


ELLIOTT: That experience inspired her current work as president of Women for Women International, the Washington-based group supports female survivors of war around the world including Iraq.

Zainab Salbi joins us now. Tuesday is World Refugee Day and Zainab Salbi joins me now. Welcome, thank you for coming in.

Ms. SALBI (President, Women for Women International): It's a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

ELLIOTT: How did you think that your own experience is affecting the way that you work now with refugees in Iraq, people in Iraq today who are having to flea their homes?

Ms. SALBI: I think on a personal level, I knew what it means to live in a war. I grew up in the Iran-Iraq War. And war for me is what I call the other side of war, the backline discussion of it. What does it mean to live it? What does it mean to go to school and then there's a bombing or, you know, I remember as a kid discussing whether I should sleep in one room so when a missile land on our home - if a missile land on our home, we would all die together, or whether we would sleep in different rooms and live our lives and take a risks. These are what's missing. These stories is what's missing from our daily discussions of war. It's the intimate aspects that it touches people.


ELLIOTT: When you think about refugees, the U.N. is telling us that there are more than four million Iraqis who have been displaced. But behind each of those statistics, there are four million personal stories.

Ms. SALBI: Absolutely. When we talk about refugees, we talk about numbers and in many ways, we deal with refugees as numbers. Even in the distribution of humanitarian aid, they have a number. They take this package of food or whatever it is. No privacy to them whatsoever. There is almost a sense that we have the right to expose anybody's stories. If you go to refugee camps, there are people literally living in tents and anybody could go and open a tent and you would say I'd like to interview you. And that sense of privacy is deleted. If you are a woman and you're a refugee and if you happen to be raped, there are often times in camps, as in Bosnia, as in Kosovo - a section of the (Unintelligible) says rape victims. To make it easier for the health experts and their reporters and anybody who wants to go on interview you but that you are also stigmatized this way.

ELLIOTT: You worked with, you know, as you've said, you work in particular with women, how do you think that the refugee experience for women is different?

Ms. SALBI: Well, you adapt much more vulnerable. As woman, you could be attacked - actually, even by the people who are trying to help you. So that you are vulnerable for rape immediately. Afghan refugees - Afghan women refugees, Women for Women International worked with them when they were in Pakistan. The women would gather once a day to go to the toilets because they were too afraid to go as frequently as they needed. So they will hold themselves together and they would all gather 50, 20 women at a time walk there to release themselves. And that is simply not respectful of their own culture and their situation and their status and the whole thing.

ELLIOTT: You have written a lot about the way that the world views refugees. You think we don't have it right?

Ms. SALBI: I think we are not respective of refugee's integrity, of the individuals, of refugees integrity. I think we have a stereo-type or rather we have images that we portray often and often that grabs public's heart and public's attention, and I call it the image of the fly on the face. I can't tell you how many - both, particularly, or even Afghan or different countries and the women say I want to put my lipstick on when I'm taking this picture because that's who I am.

I mean, I remember when I had nothing, I still would wore my nice clothes. I refused to let go of my own dignity because that's at the end of the day, all what I had. We talk about the victimization of refugees. We do not talk about their courage and resilience.

ELLIOTT: The ability to survive.

Ms. SALBI: To survive and to keep on going. It's not only - there's one woman that I met in Rwanda, her name is Beatrice(ph). And her case, seven of her children died on top of her in a church massacre. They where hiding in the church and so seven of her children's bodies simply covered her and that's why she's alive. After a couple of hours, she actually was able to leave. She was caught again. She was raped. They tried to kill her again and she simply did not die.

When I met her she was actually living in this - called Mandela Camp. It's a camp for women, mostly women refugees. And she had adapted five children, kept a child that she has as a result of rape, sending them all to school, built a small mud home for them and had a smile on her face. And I call a smile, an act of resilience actually in that case. And so at the minimum we have been unfair to how we portray the refugees especially women as one in one corner as victims and not only as courageous and resilient.

ELLIOTT: Zainab Salbi is the president of Women for Women International and is the author of book �The Other Side of War: Women's Stories of Survival and Hope.�

Thank you for coming in to talk with us.

Ms. SALBI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.