Zainab Salbi: How Do People Live and Cope In The Midst Of Violent Conflict? Humanitarian Zainab Salbi explains how life continues in the midst of war — and how the ones who "keep life going" are women.

How Do People Live and Cope In The Midst Of Violent Conflict?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about what it means To Endure and the things that pull us through, make us resilient.

Do you think of yourself as a resilient person?

ZAINAB SALBI: For sure, I am a resilient person (laughter).

RAZ: This is Zainab Salbi. She works with women in war zones.

SALBI: I think resilience as something that is part of us. You know, I think we all have it. But we all don't think we have it. But when we face our own challenge, we have it, you know. We are a resilient species, in my opinion. We are a resilient humanity.

RAZ: Resilience was something Zainab had to figure out pretty early on. It was the only way to survive the things she witnessed as a child living in Iraq because when she was barely 11, in September 1980, the Iran-Iraq War began. And it was a war that would last eight years. Zainab Salbi described her memories of the war from the TED stage.


SALBI: I woke up in the middle of the night with a sound of heavy explosion. Everything in my room was shaking - my heart, my windows, my bed. I looked out the windows, and I saw a full half circle of explosion. I thought it was just like the movies, but the movies had not conveyed them in the powerful image that I was seeing. I went back to my bed. And I prayed. And I secretly thanked God that that missile did not land on my family's home. I grew up with the colors of war - the red colors of fire and blood, the brown tones of earth as it explodes in our faces and the piercing silver of an exploded missile so bright that nothing can protect your eyes from it. I grew up with the sounds of war - the wrenching booms of explosions, ominous drones of jets flying overhead and the wailing warning sounds of sirens.

RAZ: So imagine trying to live a normal life in the middle of something so abnormal. This is basically what Zainab's mother tried to do. Her whole idea of enduring, of getting through it, of even defying the war - was to be normal, was to create a parallel world for her children.

SALBI: Here we are. You know, and I have two brothers. And, like, in the middle of the sirens - and there was a lot of instructions of what you do when the siren comes, which means Iranian planes are filling the skies of Baghdad. My mom - she would have this puppet shows for my brothers and I with her hands. And she would make all these jokes and all of these things, and we are just having fun actually.

It took me a long time to realize outside of us there were the sirens and the planes and the bombing and all of that. But her purpose as a mother in that moment of fear is to keep life going, is to make us - you know. that we are safe, that - let's laugh. It's OK. That's what parents do. That's, you know, you see the beauty of life. Keeping the beauty of life - keeping love is part of resilience.

RAZ: During the war, Zainab's father was in the Iraqi army, so she didn't get to see him all that much. And in fact, most of the people she did see weren't on the front lines.

SALBI: I could see, as a child, that all the - you know, everything that was talked about on TV was from male perspective - the men fighting, bullets, you know - army , tanks, airplanes, all of it. But actually, as a child, I was witnessing women in my life. My mother was a woman. The teachers were women. People who run the grocery shop were women. The factories were run by women, and suddenly I realized that wow - so the world thinks of war from a male perspective, which is not untrue. It is true except they are missing the other aspect of war, which is that women are really keeping life going in the midst of war.

RAZ: After the war ended Zainab left Iraq for the U.S., but she never forgot that other side of war - the side most of us never see - the side in which life somehow goes on and endures. So in her early 20s, she started a group called Women for Women International. It's dedicated to helping women who live in war zones, and Zainab began to travel to some of those places.

SALBI: You know, when I first went to war zones, I would, like, you know, wear my jeans and sneakers. And like, OK. I'm a women's right activist and a humanitarian, and I'm here to help people. And honestly, it was from the women that I thought I was helping who taught me how to enjoy beauty and celebrate it. It was women in Bosnia, for example, during the days of Sarajevo. It was longest besieged city. And I went in the besiege. And I went - I was like OK - what do you want me to bring you next time I'm here? And the woman said lipstick. I'm, like, lipstick?

RAZ: (Laughter).

SALBI: What are you talking about? Don't you want - I don't know - vitamins? You know, something, I don't know. And they're like lipstick. I was like - why? And they said because it's the smallest thing we put on every day and we feel we are beautiful, and that's how we are resisting. They want us to feel that we are dead. They want us to feel that we are ugly.

And one woman, she said, I put the lipstick every time I leave because I want that sniper, before he shoots me, to know he is killing a beautiful woman. And I look at her, and I was, like, that's how she's keeping her beauty. Like, who am I to take myself so seriously when they are keeping life going through beauty and through the joy, just as my mother did when I was a child?

And so that act of resilience - you keep the joy. You keep the laughter. You keep singing the song. You keep the melodies of the song going. That's how women resist and show their resilience in the darkest of circumstances, and that's what war is.

RAZ: Zainab says it's these stories of women enduring and resisting that we just never hear about.


SALBI: We are missing the story of Fareeda, a music teacher in Sarajevo, who made sure that she kept the music school open every single day in the four years of besiege in Sarajevo and walked to that school, despite the snipers shooting at that school and at her, and kept the piano, the violin, the cello playing the whole duration of the war, with students wearing their gloves and hats and coats. That was her fight. That was her resistance.

We are missing the story of Nehia, a Palestinian woman in Gaza who, the minute there was a cease-fire, she left out of home, collected all the flours (ph) and baked as much bread for every neighbor to have, in case there is no cease-fire the day after.

We are missing the stories of Violet, who, despite surviving of a genocide in the church massacre, she kept on going on - burying bodies, building homes, cleaning the streets.

We are missing stories of women who are literally keeping life going in the midst of wars. Do you know - do you know that people fall in love in war and go to school and go to factories and hospitals and get divorced and go dancing and go playing and live life going?

RAZ: Where do you think that instinct comes from, you know, that allows us to keep going? Because when I hear these stories, I can't help but think, you know, I don't know if I could do that.

SALBI: Absolutely. There are lots of times I went through that stage, where I feel like this is too much. I don't want to do it. It's too ugly for me. It's too disgusting. It's too cruel. I cannot do it. But then it takes one act of kindness. It takes one good story. It takes one blossom of a, like, a plant, a flower in between the dry earth. Have you been walking somewhere and you see a small blossom of some green?

RAZ: Yeah, yeah.

SALBI: It takes one of that, one act of kindness that turns things around for us and keeps us believing in the goodness of humanity.

RAZ: It's almost like a survival mechanism, you know? Like, we're wired to survive and perpetuate our species. And if we didn't endure - if we weren't resilient, we would die, right? We wouldn't make it.

SALBI: I agree. And I think, you know, it's not only instinctual. I mean, some of us it's instinctual. I mean, my experience of people - it's honestly a belief - I don't know how to explain it other than - you know, you believe in God. You believe in miracles. You believe in something that is impossible to make it possible - in an intangible thing that is so strong in human spirit. But we don't know how to account for it, you know? We don't know how to measure it, but it is hope - it's hope. That hope, that belief in something that is something possible. Something good can happen. That's sort of the thread that pulls us out of our darkness, be it a person who is depressed or be it a person in a war. It doesn't matter. There is a possibility. Love can be there. Things can be better. That belief is always there in human beings.

RAZ: Zainab Salbi - she now hosts a talk show for Arab women that's broadcast throughout the Middle East and North Africa. You can see her entire talk at

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