CHICAGO: An Egyptian-American immigrant successful in US political and activism life says that the key to countering pro-Israel propaganda is to make a direct connection with Americans and educate them on the truth about the Middle East conflict.
Mary Basta, who came to America from Egypt in the 1970s at the age of five, pursued a career in hospitality in Nashville, Tennessee, but quickly found herself rising in local politics to become the mayor of the 16th-largest city in Illinois, a state that has 1,456 cities.
Basta told Arab News on Wednesday (June 7) that she achieved her meteoric rise in American politics by focusing on “American interests” first before focusing on the interests of her former homeland Egypt — though not forgetting that heritage either.
“Egyptians and Middle Eastern in general is a little bit unique. We have a hard time because we can’t let go. We always carry the burden on our shoulders of where we are from and the issues that we face. We underwent a revolution and we changed two presidents. And you are always carrying that and you always feel like this is my home, this is my country and my culture and what can I do to help. But for us, we have lots of different issues that we encounter here. Both, one, we aren’t pure Americans so therefore you always feel you have to work harder. You have to achieve more. And then from our family, you always have to be this engineer, or doctor, dentist or this lawyer, because anything else you haven’t been successful in your life,” Basta said.
“So, there are definitely some high benchmarks that we instill in ourselves, and our families instill in us, and trying to live up to those expectations is very hard, while still trying to maintain our traditions and our cultures. Some people hold on to those like they are holding on to life, and some people are glad to get rid of them as soon as possible. So, it is hard to navigate between being true to yourself, your culture, as well as what we are thinking and where your current situation is. It’s not always when in Rome do as the Romans do. Sometimes you have to do as the Greeks do.”
Basta told Arab News that she and her family came to the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook in 2003 to find a better life, volunteering to assist the local schools and local government to help her children.
Less than 16 years later, Basta entered local politics — what she prefers to call “public service” — serving as a volunteer on several Bolingbrook commissions, including the powerful Zoning Board, which oversees community and business expansion.
She quickly was named chairwoman. Soon after, in 2019, she was named by the city’s mayor and board to fill a vacancy as one of the village’s six trustees. Within a year, after the mayor left office, in 2020, her board colleagues elected her as mayor. And the following year, in 2021, was elected by a majority of the village’s 75,000 residents to a four-year term as the mayor, which she is now serving.
Basta said that her rapid rise in politics, which dwarfs the decades-long efforts of other Arab Americans to enter politics, is different because she focused her attention first on serving the residents of Bolingbrook rather than dedicating her life to changing the politics of the Middle East more than 9,000 miles away.
“This will always be home to my children, where I can say Egypt is my home or even Nashville, but Bolingbrook will be where my kids were born and where they grew up and where they graduated from. So I want that to be a place that they are proud of to bring their kids back here, even grandkids, and say this is where I grew up, this is where I was born, this is my soccer field, this is my school. For that to be something to be proud of it takes effort and it takes work and it takes long-term planning and thinking. So, putting the right people in place, putting the right policies in place, and then watching them getting carried out from that point,” Basta said.
“It’s not about me, it is about we. It’s not what I want but it’s what is better for the community.”
Basta said that running for American political office is much like running a business. It takes “a thick skin” to withstand the criticism, as well as a local focus on the community that elected you. She said that she did face the same discrimination and stereotype “bullying” many Arabs, Christian and Muslims have faced, but she persevered.
“Today’s kids have not seen bullying until you see a little foreign girl growing up in a very white, I am going to use the term redneck, portion of Nashville, Tennessee. So, I definitely know what bullying is. I definitely felt it growing up as being someone who is different. Not just in the way that I looked but also in the culture. As you know, Middle Eastern culture is very different from that in the US, especially for females,” Basta said.
Basta made her comments during an appearance on “The Ray Hanania Radio Show,” broadcast Wednesday May 31 live in Detroit and Washington D.C. on the US Arab Radio Network and sponsored by Arab News.
You can listen to the radio show’s podcast by visiting ArabNews.com/rayradioshow.