The Butterfly Effect: It's a Small World After All

Zainab Salbi, the founder of the humanitarian group Women for Women International, explores the often untapped and underappreciated capacity of women around the world to cause major and lasting change for good.

It's a Small World After All

The butterfly effect is a metaphor for the concept that small, seemingly insignificant events — like the fluttering of a butterfly's wings — can produce tremendous and unanticipated consequences. In this blog, Zainab Salbi, the founder of the humanitarian group Women for Women International, explores the often untapped and underappreciated capacity of women around the world to cause major and lasting change for good.

Read Zainab's previous blog post here.

When I was a child growing up in Iraq, my family always hired someone to clean our house. Sometimes the cleaner would come on a daily basis and sometimes they would live in our house. This was a common practice among middle-class Iraqi families. One could not afford to skip a day of cleaning the floors, vacuuming, and dusting, as the sand and dust would fill every corner of the house very quickly. If you were a working couple, like my parents were, having a house maid was more common than not, something that I know often shocks my American friends and definitely was a shock for my ex-husband when we first got married 17 years ago. But this is not the story I am trying to tell.

The story is about Radiya, an 8-year-old girl, whose mother used to clean my family's home and who ended up being our live-in house maid herself for about 9 years. Radiya was only one or two years older than me. The dynamics between me (the only daughter among two sons) and her were confusing. My parents instructed me to treat Radiya like a sister but it was also clear that she was not my equal. I went to school in the morning while she stayed and cleaned the house. She went to school in the evening while I stayed home and studied. When my father came back from his trips (he was a commercial pilot), for every five gifts he brought me, he brought her one. When we ate in the dinning room, she ate in the kitchen. When I hugged my mother on the sofa as we watched TV, she sat on the floor. She saw her family only two Fridays a month, the weekly day off in Iraq. The rest of the week, she lived estranged from her family in the confines of my family's home.

Seeing Radiya's family when my mother dropped her off for a home visit was my first time seeing poverty in Iraq. Her family lived in two rooms. Her mother baked bread and her father worked as guard in a school. Her family had made a decision to send their daughter to work while they sent her brothers to school. It took me a long time to connect my own childhood and the sacrifices Radiya was expected to make with the fact that I ended up dedicating my life to ensuring that girls and women have access to education and the opportunity to stand on their feet.

Living in my family's home, Radiya was indeed a sister, but she was a "second class" sister. She was treated "nicely" in the Iraqi style but, as I now know as an adult, this was child labor. My family and I did love her indeed, so much so that my mother gave Radiya, not me, her wedding dress when Radiya eventually left the family for a job my father helped her get as an airport receptionist. That was the last I saw of Radiya. She eventually moved to another province with her in-laws while I fell in love, got engaged, broke up, and eventually got married and left for the US.

It has been 20 years since I left Iraq. In all these years, I never once stopped thinking of Radiya. She was very much part of my life. She witnessed my dark moments as a kid and a teenager. She was there with me and was there for me. I thought of her as I was starting Women for Women International, a group that is dedicated to serving women survivors of wars. I think of her as I meet women in Congo, Rwanda, and Afghanistan, who have also been sacrificed by their families so their brothers can have a better life and who have also worked since their childhood. But in all these years and my eventual trips to Iraq as I expanded Women for Women International's work in Iraq, I never managed to find a way to find Radiya until last week.

One of Women for Women International's main goals is to ask every woman around the world to sponsor one woman in a conflict or post-conflict zone by sending $27 per month along with a letter to start a communication link between two women. The sponsorship is for a year and the two women, who we call "sisters," get to write to each other as much as they wish. I see it as women building personal bridges of peace and diplomacy. Last week, one of my colleagues in the Women for Women International-Iraq office forwarded me a picture of two girls and a letter written from an Iraqi woman to her American sister. My colleague, who was in the process of translating the letter into English, told me that he believed that I was one of the girls in the picture and that the woman was writing about me. The picture was of me and Radiya and the letter was from Radiya herself, who had become a participant of Women for Women International programs in Iraq. Seventeen years after I founded Women for Women International, after 250,000 women in eight countries have been served and $79 million have helped support women survivors of war, I get to be reconnected to Radiya.

In the letter, Radiya wrote about me. She wrote about her childhood and about how she worked for a family who had a daughter one year younger than herself. The daughter was like her sister. They played together and slept together. She talked about how that family bought her clothes and gave her and her family their secondhand clothes. She wrote how she still has these clothes and she still thinks of that family and their daughter who was her friend. She wrote about her life, how her husband was killed by terrorists. How she has six children. How she has no one and how she needs help.

It's been more than 33 years since Radiya worked in my family's home. It's been 20 years since I saw Radiya. I got married and divorced, and married and divorced. I traveled the world, talked to women, and encouraged them to speak out and speak up. I have tried and am still trying my best to make resources available for women to get an income and stand on their feet so they get their independence. So they can decide to send their daughters to school. So they can ensure that their daughters are eating as much food as their sons. So they can decide when and how to do the things they want, how to get the things they need, and how to love Twenty years later, I realize that my work has come full circle and that it is a small world, a world that allowed me to connect with my childhood friend who helped me understand my darkness and my goodness, my beauty and my ugliness. Twenty years later, I reconnect with Radiya, the woman who taught me about poverty, sisterhood, friendship, inequality, cruelty, love, and, well, life. I cannot wait to visit her and surprise her with a hug and ask for forgiveness.