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Zainab Salbi's speech for 2019 Winter Graduation

December 19, 2019

George Mason University alumna Zainab Salbi speaks during the 2019 Winter Graduation morning ceremony. Photo by Lathan Goumas/Office of Communications and Marketing.

(Remarks as prepared for delivery)

Ladies and Gentlemen, Mothers and Fathers, Students and Faculty, Graduates:

Congratulations for finishing a major milestone in your life. And you managed to do so from truly one of the best educational institutions out there, one that values and nourishes students’ full experience beyond what is taught in the classroom and one that has a rich history of honoring and celebrating diversity in all of its student body.

I speak from personal experience as an alum of George Mason University and a graduate of the class of ‘96. To tell you that it is an honor to stand in front of you and my former professors today is an understatement. And I also think it is a symbolic reflection of life itself.

As you embark on this new chapter of your life, you will soon learn that you will eventually end up playing all roles in the play of life: the student and the teacher, the employee and the employer, the giver and the receiver, the one who sets policies and the one who demonstrates against them, the loved one and sometimes the resented or even the hated one. Such is life. It forces its multidimensional aspects on us and leaves us with the choice of either accepting and learning from all the experiences – the good ones and the challenging ones alike – or fearing and resenting them. Over time, I came to learn that how one deals with what life brings is an individual choice that ultimately boils down to living life out of fear or living life out of love. 

It is hard to talk about love in front of an academic institution and perhaps harder to talk about love in such a divided time in our world. But it is love that shall carry you through life’s journey in its ups and downs, successes and failures, and births and deaths – experiences that shall find their way to each person’s life for without which we don’t learn and grow not only as successful individuals but as happy ones. 

Some of you know your next steps in life as you walk out of today’s ceremony and some of you do not. Some of you may have a secured job and some of you are still looking for one and may still be dreaming about what’s next. If you happen to be one who knows, walk and share humbly and with gratitude. And if you are someone who does not know yet, be kind to yourself and be grateful as well. Not knowing is part of the magic ingredient of living life and yet it is perhaps counterintuitive to the world we are living in which defines our successes with the “knowing” of our job titles, the amount of money in our bank accounts, and our number of social media followers.  

Yet, the not knowing will take you to a new kind of knowledge. The knowledge of your heart’s inner desire, the knowledge of your own personal truth. Not the society’s truth of what is right and wrong. Not your family’s truth of what you should be or not be. And not even the truth of what defines success in one’s career or education. The choice is yours as you leave George Mason’s halls today to embark on a life in values that reflect your own truth or to live ones that have been defined for you by societal norms of the past and trends of the present.

And here comes my second piece of advice: live your life in your truth today, not tomorrow and most definitely not the day after. Dare to be and do what you like to do today. Do not put your dreams and visions on hold until you reach a point of security, be it in financial or career positions. When dreams are put on hold, they have their own way of crawling their longing into our heart’s desires and they shall hit you with the existential question of why am I not living my truth today.  

We are here in this world to give our full potential and share our full magic to our world, our communities and in our personal lives. If we each dare to be who we truly are in living our truths in our values and in our careers and in our personal lives every single day, the world shall come along with us and reflect the change we are making and walking every day. After all, the world we are living in is a product of our imagination, so we might as well claim our imagination to its fullest potential for us and for the world. 

Now, it is not always easy to walk your journey of truth. Doing so may feel odd in front of your friends and family at times and lonely in other times. And yet true success comes as a full experience of satisfaction inside and out and not merely as an external definition of societal norms. Measure success as not only the accumulation of titles and monetary objects but also of the satisfaction of your heart’s desires and peace of mind.

This may not be a straightforward journey, but it is one that will ultimately lead you to what you are looking for – internally and externally. It is worth trying. More than that, it is worth you giving this life all that you have to live it fully every single day. 

I was attending a class at George Mason when a realization during the class changed my life. As Professor Lenore Weitzman was teaching us about the history of the Holocaust, images of tortured and raped men and women surrounded by barbed wires in Bosnia and Herzegovina were on the cover of Time magazine. In class, I was learning about the concept of “Never Again,” but in reality, I was seeing atrocities and a genocide of people because of their religion was happening again in front of our eyes. I knew I had to act not because I was Bosnian or had any relationship to that country or its people but because I had the responsibility of acting now that I had the knowledge of what was happening. 

That responsibility to act when seeing injustice lays with each and every single one of us. When we avoid seeing or doing something about injustice we invariably legitimize it and allow for the corruption of our own values. Talking about our values is one thing but acting upon them and walking our talk is quite another thing and I would say sometimes a much harder one to do.

At first, I joined peaceful demonstrations to raise awareness about the genocide in Bosnia. Some of these demonstrations were with chants and others were silent but neither made me feel that what I was doing was enough. As an immigrant, I have a profound respect and appreciation of the values of this country – most importantly the value of freedom. I grew up in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where fear defined not only my life but everyone around me. We would see injustice around us, from killings to imprisonments of people simply for expressing their views on what they see as wrong. So we stayed silent to save our lives and the lives of our loved ones. We did not know that silence is also the poison that we were drinking and that it has its own way to bring death upon us.

Enough loved ones died around me in their silence that I vowed to speak up ever since I arrived to the United States in 1990. This value of freedom is beautiful, it is essential, it is to be defended in times where truth is questioned, and it is acted upon and not taken for granted in both our personal and political lives.

That’s when I started Women for Women International, an organization that is dedicated to helping women survivors of wars by rebuilding their lives. I was still a student at GMU, I had very limited job experience and I had no money whatsoever. But my professors believed in me and supported me in every single way possible – sometimes even to my surprise. As my friends outside of the university were mocking me for wanting to change the world and telling me to focus on a study that would land me a good job and enable me to get a good house and a car or two, my professors were accommodating my desire to do an independent study combining different disciplines that would complement my passion to help women survivors of wars.

Within months of founding the group, I managed to go to Bosnia and Croatia and meet the women I wanted to help. This started by identifying 33 American women who agreed to join the sponsorship program of supporting one woman at a time by sending her $30 a month along with a letter to open the door of connections between two women across so many geographical, religious and cultural divides.

Twenty-five years later, Women for Women International ended up reaching 460,000 women in various conflict areas and connecting them with women in America and around the world raising more than $120 million in direct aid and microcredit loans shaped to support women rebuilding their lives financially and emotionally. 

A few things to share out of my learning as the founder and the former CEO of Women for Women International:

First, it made all the difference to know that someone believed in my vision. My professors played a significant role in that through their belief in my efforts and that made all the difference in my life. Try to always be that person who believes in someone’s dreams and not dismiss them. You never know what that dream can lead to. In my case, my simple dream led to connecting 1 million women to each other from different parts of the world.

Second, following my heart’s calling worked. In the first years of Women for Women, it was tough as I was studying and working full time and had limited financial resources. But over time everything fell into place. My career became more established, financial securities arrived over time, the awards and recognitions started pouring in all while feeling that I was living my truth every single day. Oh, and the friends who mocked me became proud supporters of my efforts. Paving my own path in life worked and it was worth the efforts. 

Third, I learned humility in the meaning of knowledge and how to apply it. I ventured on my travels and conversations with women from rural Congo to southern Sudan thinking I have learned all there is to learn from my studies. Yet each time I thought I knew what I was talking about, I quickly realized that I did not know it all. The women I was there to help ended up teaching me so much more about knowledge that my studies did not address or fully cover. My favorite example is not knowing how many eggs a chicken gives as I was helping a woman draft her business plan for an egg-selling business. 

Fourth, I learned that talking about one’s values is one thing, implementing them is quite another thing. More than that, in the implementation of our values, we become more humble, grounded and more compassionate in understanding the other. In my case, I charged myself with encouraging women from so many conflict areas to break their silence and speak truth to power about what they faced. But I never dared to speak my own truth, about my story and my plight. I covered it up under the disguise that it is small and I would say that I hid it by the privilege of my education. It was a 52-year-old illiterate woman from The Democratic Republic of the Congo who taught me that breaking one’s silence is everyone’s job. When one woman breaks her silence, she sheds light on the issue and with that maybe spares other women from going through what she has gone through. Each story we tell acts like a candle to others as they/we hide in the darkness of our fears and shame.

The journey that set me up to help other women ended up helping me. It is because of what Nanbitu told me about why it is important for each one of us to tell our truths that I dared to tell mine. To stay silent would have to betray my values and all the women I was in service to. They are me, I am them, you are us, and us is them. 

When I ventured to speak about my story of my own rape, or arranged marriage, or association with a dictator, I was confronted with shame, fear, and worry of judgment. But eventually when we look our fear in the eyes, one can and inevitably does come out the other direction freer. We are the prison guard and the prisoner in it. And we are the only ones who can free ourselves from that fear. Oh, and the memoir in which I documented my story became a bestseller. That was nice, too.

But life is not always an upward momentum. It is more like a spiral with its ups and downs every time. Sometimes you fall, and sometimes you stand and run. Breathe through each experience and learn as much as you can from its lessons. In my case, 20 years after founding and running Women for Women International, I handed over the organization to new leadership so I might follow new dreams of going back to the Middle East and starting a gutsy show dedicated to acknowledging Arab and Muslim women, showing the possibilities of change from within regional culture and the religion and building small bridges between women in the region.   

It is never easy to start something new. Not when you are 23 years old nor when you are 43 years old. You always have to work hard on proving yourself and your vision. At times, you may feel frustrated that you have to prove yourself over and over again but the process keeps you grounded and always teaches you new lessons. This time my lesson was in failure, of not succeeding as I thought I would.

I beat myself up for failing, but failure ended up teaching me a few things: First, it humbled my ego; it showed me that any attempts for positive change get met with resistance. It showed me that perseverance is actually needed to move forward with changes in the world. And mostly it led me to a larger initiative. The challenges “The Nida’a Show” faced in the Middle East led to the birth of Nidaa.TV, the first platform of its kind dedicated to movies and shows about women and for women. In my experience of failure, I learned new skills and gained new awareness on how to live life and the patience a vision requires and needs.

A few months ago, I nearly died as I was grasping for my breath at the hospital. I am OK now and thank God. But more than that, I learned to see life in a new way where every breath is a blessing, where acts of kindness and expressions of love from family, friends and strangers surpassed anything else I held important in life.  

Perhaps the most important of all my wishes for you today – beyond wishes for success and happiness, beyond living your truth in integrity and satisfaction and beyond accomplishing your dreams and hearts’ desires – is to breathe. Breathe in gratitude to this life you have been given. Breathe in gratitude for the love around you from family to friends to colleagues and strangers. And breathe in kindness to this Earth through all your actions.  

May you walk the hero’s journey in your life. May you live this new chapter fully. May joy carry you through. And may you dance and sing until the very end.

Topics: Graduation