The Personal Touch

When the Holocaust became general news after World War II, the cry went out, "Never Again!" Never again, we said, would we allow genocide to occur, wherein whole populations are destroyed simply because of who they are. We hoped that the world had truly decided on "Never again!" But that doesn’t seem to be the case.

In the past decade, among a myriad of smaller wars, there have been two major massacres that some have called genocides: Bosnia and Rwanda. Both of these were known while they were going on; both received only perfunctory attention from the United Nations and the major powers. Both were permitted to continue until massive destruction of human life had occurred. Neither is really yet over, but both have led to so much killing that now in both Bosnia and Rwanda the population is 70 percent women. Yet these women have not gone unscathed. Besides losing their husbands, fathers, and brothers in so many cases, they themselves have often been tortured and/or raped. Now they find themselves devastated, having lost their men, their homes, and often their self-respect.

What they may still have is children. In Rwanda, there are so many orphans that each woman is asked to care for six children besides her own.

Besides being horrified at the situation in these countries, a woman in Washington, D.C., decided that she needed to do something about it. She is Zanaib Selbi, originally from Iraq. She established a program called "Women for Women." The purpose of this organization was first to establish one-on-one relationships between women in Bosnia and American women. Through her contacts in Bosnia, Selbi, with the help of two co-workers and many volunteers, arranges for these connections to be made. Both individuals and larger groups, such as churches, have participated. The American woman sends small amounts of money each month as well as a letter. Through translators, if necessary, the letters and money are given to selected women of Bosnia who write back. The return letters usually include gratitude for the money but especially for the support, for the idea that somebody cares about them.

THE AMERICAN WOMEN write about their own lives. One of the more than 600 participants says that she describes her garden, the way the different flowers make their appearance during the seasons. Her Bosnian friend thanks her for sharing that beauty with her. The Bosnian woman writes about her family, understandably avoiding the most painful parts of her story.

Then the program was expanded to include Rwanda. Here women too have lived through such horrors that any care from the outside is welcome. Several churches across the United States have linked up with the Women for Women program.

But the program is not intended to establish dependency. The American volunteer makes a commitment of only six months or a year. She can continue if she wishes, but it is not meant to take the place of local programs and initiatives.

To ensure that, Women for Women recently began to work with a job training program in Bosnia. The organization has also been working with a credit union similar to the Grameen Bank project that was first developed in India. This bank allows the poor, especially women, to borrow small sums of money to start their own small business. A woman might borrow enough for a sewing machine with which she will make clothes to sell. Or she might buy a refrigerator to sell cold drinks to people. These women enterprisers often help each other, making sure that each can pay back her loans. In fact, the rate of pay-back on these small loans is very high.

The problems of these devastated women in these devastated countries will not be solved only by small cash donations from American women, letters, and small loans. But certainly such personal concern will go a long way toward re-establishing the self-worth and the self-confidence of these women, who-often alone-need to start rebuilding their countries.

LUCY FUCHS is a retired college professor from Florida who now works on social justice issues. Women for Women is at 1725 K St. NW, Suite 611, Washington, DC 20006;;

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