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Wife of envoy raises funds to help women, children

- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 8, 2009

One of Washington's most powerful women is a child of war who today is promoting peace, using her high-profile status to raise millions of dollars to help resettle refugees, fight malaria, build schools and fund hospitals for children.

"I'm in a unique position where I can make a difference in the lives of women and children, and it just feels right," said Sheikha Rima al-Sabah, the wife of Kuwait's ambassador to the United States. "If each of us makes a small contribution in any way we can, we will make the world a much better place."

"Helping women and children is my passion," she added. "I can't bear to see a child suffer. I can't bear to see a woman suffer."

Tall, blond and beautiful, Sheikha Rima, at 47 with four sons, looks like a fashion model. The glamour she radiates belies the horror she knew growing up in her native Lebanon during a civil war that devastated her homeland from 1975 to 1990. She was 13 when the conflict broke out.

A daughter of upper-middle class professionals, she remembers sleeping on mattresses pulled into the hall of her parents' apartment in Beirut to avoid random gunfire that would pierce the outer walls or shatter windows, sending shards of glass flying. One day, a rocket exploded in the family dining room.

"Children of war are not like other children. They have their childhood stolen from them," Sheikha Rima said.

"You hear gunfire at night and wake up in the morning glad to be alive. You don't take life for granted," she said.

She joined Lebanon's Daily Star as political editor in 1984 and became a war correspondent for United Press International in 1986. One day as she was covering the conflict, a photographer standing next to her was wounded in the leg.

She also interviewed Terry Waite, the envoy of the Church of England, the day before he was kidnapped by the Islamic Jihad Organization as he was trying to negotiate the release of other hostages held by the terrorists.

"My dream was to become a war correspondent. I wanted to show the plight of those suffering from conflicts," Sheikha Rima said.

The war claimed 250,000 lives and wounded 1 million people, about one-third of the population.

By that time, however Sheikha Rima had found another life. She met Sheikh Salem al-Sabah at the American University of Beirut, where she had earned a bachelor's degree in political science. They married in 1988.

Soon the former Lebanese war correspondent and the future Kuwaiti ambassador, a member of his country's royal family, were off on a diplomatic adventure, first in New York at the Kuwaiti mission to the United Nations for eight years, then to South Korea, where Sheikh Salem had his first ambassadorial post. They arrived in Washington eight years ago.

By 2005, Sheikha Rima's humanitarian instincts drew her to hold annual gala dinners and raise money for charities through the Kuwait-America Foundation, which was founded in 1991 to express Kuwaiti gratitude for the U.S. liberation of the country from Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Ambassador Molly Raiser, chief of protocol under President Clinton, appealed to Sheikha Rima for help in resettling Iraqi refugees, mostly women and children. At the time, Mrs. Raiser was head of USA for UNHCR (the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees).

Sheikha Rima sought her husband's advice.

"I told him I wanted to raise $1 million for the refugees. He looked at me and said, 'You can do it,'" she said.

"My husband and I are a team," she added. "He does the political work, and I do the social and foundation work. My husband is my biggest supporter. He gives me my wings. I wouldn't have been able to do it without his support."

Sheikha Rima started writing letters to corporate executives, asking them to donate money to benefit the refugees and come to a gala dinner at the Kuwaiti ambassador's elegant residence. Then she wrote to government officials, knowing that high-ranking guests are key to successful Washington dinner parties.

Colin Powell, then secretary of state, and actress Angelina Jolie, who was the UNHCR goodwill ambassador, received the foundation's humanitarian award, and Broadway composer Marvin Hamlisch played piano. The corporate executives paid up to $100,000 to attend what Sheikha Rima called a "relaxed, intimate" dinner of 144 guests — 12 guests at each of 12 tables.

She reached her fundraising goal.

The next year, she raised $1.2 million for UNICEF, with first lady Laura Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and actor Michael Douglas as award recipients. Mr. Hamlisch returned to entertain the guests and played a piano duet with Miss Rice.

In 2007, Sheikha Rima raised $1.4 million to benefit Project HOPE and the Basra Children's Hospital in Iraq. Mrs. Bush and Miss Rice returned as honored guests and country music star Randy Travis played guitar with Josh Bolten, President Bush's chief of staff.

The 2008 gala brought in $1.6 million to combat malaria in Africa with President Bush as the guest of honor. Youssou N'Dour, the Grammy-award winning singer from Senegal, performed. This year the proceeds grew to $1.8 million when she honored Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

Sheikha Rima is especially excited about next year's gala. She is raising money to help American philanthropist Greg Mortenson build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"He has built more than 130 schools, where 54,000 kids are being educated," Sheikha Rima said. "He is providing hope and promoting peace, one child at a time."

She has already collected $2 million to help Mr. Mortenson, with her top corporate guests now paying up to $350,000 each to support the cause.

Her charitable work has also attracted widespread media attention. The Washingtonian Magazine this year named her one of the 100 most powerful women in this city. In 2007, Marie Claire, the fashion magazine, said Sheikha Rima "strengthened ties between the U.S. and Kuwait and changed our view of Arab women."