Hilton Humanitarian Prize Goes to Salbi’s Women for Women International

Posted: November 27, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

In October, Mason alumna Zainab Salbi, BIS ’96, was in New York City to accept the 2006 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize of $1.5 million on behalf of her organization, Women for Women International. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation presents the annual award, the world’s largest humanitarian prize, to an organization that significantly alleviates human suffering.

“Women and children bear the major burdens of the unprecedented number of wars and civil conflicts raging worldwide and are often left to rebuild their lives without the basic necessities for survival or a viable means to earn a living and take care of their families,” said Steven M. Hilton, chairman and CEO of the Hilton Foundation.

“Women for Women International has demonstrated that it can create change and stability within a society by providing women survivors with the tools and resources to rebuild their lives.”

Women for Women International was founded in 1993 by Salbi while she was still a student at Mason. Today the organization works with women survivors of wars and conflicts in nine countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Kosovo, Colombia, Nigeria, Rwanda and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Picking up where humanitarian aid leaves off, it has served more than 70,000 women and distributed approximately $28 million in direct aid and micro-credit loans, assisting 380,000 family members. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., field offices are staffed almost entirely by country nationals.

“We are incredibly proud and grateful to receive the Hilton Humanitarian Prize,” said Salbi, herself a survivor of war and conflict in Iraq. “It reinforces our vision that stronger women build stronger nations and encourages us to work harder to bring the voices and concerns of the women we serve to the forefront.

“Women are the glue that keeps families and communities whole,” she continued. “No society can progress if women are not fully engaged.”

Salbi reported that the $1.5 million prize will be used as a challenge gift with the goal of raising $6 million to build permanent safe women’s centers in the countries where the organization has operations. “In this way, women will have a place to go to work, learn about their rights, operate businesses and teach others,” she says.

Inspired to start Women for Women International after reading of rape camps in Bosnia and Croatia, Salbi created an innovative sister-to-sister program that matches women sponsors with women whose lives have been torn apart by war and conflict. Sponsors donate $27 monthly to provide basic necessities such as food, clean water, medicine, schoolbooks or seed money for income-producing projects.

Sponsors also exchange letters with their “sisters,” giving hope and encouragement that is as critical to aiding a woman to move from victim to survivor to independent citizen as financial support, noted Salbi. Tens of thousands of women in every state of the U.S., as well as in 56 other countries, serve as sponsors. They exchanged 47,000 letters last year as well as contributed about 40 percent of the organization’s budget.

Salbi wrote her personal story, “Between Two Worlds, Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam,” a best-selling book now being issued in paperback. She has become an international spokesperson on women in post-conflict situations and speaks at leading forums such as the 2006 Davos World Economic Forum. Salbi’s second book, “The Other Side of War: Women’s Stories of Survival and Hope,” was published this fall by National Geographic.

Judy Miller, director of the Hilton Prize, said Women for Women International was one of more than 250 nominees for the prize. A distinguished international jury made the final selection following a rigorous examination of the nominees, including field visits to sites around the world.

Based in Los Angeles, the Hilton Foundation was created in 1944 by the late hotel entrepreneur and business leader, Conrad N. Hilton, who left his fortune to the foundation with instructions to help the most disadvantaged and vulnerable throughout the world without regard to religion, ethnicity or geography.

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