AT THE BEGINNING OF JUNE, I filed a resolution in the Boston City Council to recognize Immigrant Heritage Month. As a first-generation American, the daughter of a Polish mother and a Tunisian father, I am proud to celebrate the nationwide effort for the vast contributions of immigrant communities to our country’s history, economy, and culture. Immigrant Heritage Month is a time to remember that most of us can trace our roots to another nation. I honor the bravery and sacrifice of our forebears who sought a better life on distant shores, for themselves and for their descendants. Their dream is the American Dream.
In March, I was able to visit my father’s homeland of Tunisia for the first time. After a long period of upheaval and chaos, Tunisia adopted a new constitution in 2014 and began to decentralize its national government and to empower local and municipal governments. As the only Tunisian-American in the program, I was among 10 Arab-American current and former elected officials invited to participate in the US-Tunisian Peer Exchange, an initiative created to support newly elected representatives in the country’s transition to democracy.
I was paired with Tunis Councilwoman Amel Medded, one of the first elected local representatives in the history of the country. The US-Tunisia Peer Exchange Program is designed to expose the newly elected local officials with the core principles of the American model of public service: civic engagement, transparency, and responsiveness. During the trip, we attended public hearings, collaborated on decentralization efforts with policymakers and activists, and participated in a listening tour with students, youth and women’s empowerment organizations, and female members of parliament. Seeing my father’s homeland work to embrace democracy was a moving experience.
At dinner on my first night in Tunisia, my grandmother looked at me with shining eyes from across a table laden with tagine, asida, and fragrant couscous. Struggling to find the words, she told me how happy she was to have me there, and what it meant to her to have a Boston city councilor in the family.
I recalled when, as a child, I told my father that one day I would run for public office. He replied that an Arab girl raised by a Muslim with the last name Essaibi would never get enough votes to win in Boston. That night, sharing dishes and trading stories with my Tunisian family and Grandma Lele, I wished once again that my father could be there with me. He would have been proud to see his daughter representing the city that had recently elected me to my second term. More importantly, he would have been proud of his beloved adopted city of Boston. Despite the struggles we still face, we have come a long way.
Throughout the trip, I was struck by the similarities of the challenges facing the residents of Tunis and my constituents in Boston. A public hearing sponsored by Amel centered on housing and displacement in the historic neighborhood of the Tunis Madinah, a cultural landmark. Due to deterioration from age and neglect, more than 300 buildings in the Madinah desperately need repairs. The constituents and residents of the Madinah spoke passionately and emotionally of their fears of displacement, and the importance of preserving the cultural integrity of their neighborhood and their family homes.
Similarly, many of our Boston neighborhoods are experiencing a crisis of housing affordability, gentrification, and displacement. Our city and our Commonwealth are struggling to provide housing for a rising homeless population, many of them families. Just as I am working to resolve family homelessness in Boston, Amel is working to address displacement in Tunis, and to preserve its history in the face of rapid changes. Amel and I spent many hours discussing the challenges of promoting growth in our cities while preserving communities and amplifying the voices of our constituents.
I returned from Tunisia to Boston with a renewed sense of hope and optimism. Seeing my Tunisian counterparts working collaboratively to build this fledgling democracy inspired me. It also gave me a greater appreciation for our American model of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” This great melting pot of America is strong because it is diverse. We are the sum of many parts.
Our immigrant populations are under attack by the rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in the US. Each of us have an obligation to stand by our immigrant neighbors, and to recognize publicly their contributions to our country and to our city. As a city councilor, I fully support and proudly voted in favor of the 2014 Trust Act, which prohibited Boston Police from detaining suspected undocumented immigrants at the sole request of ICE. Immigrants are and have always been vital to the economic, social, and cultural vitality of our city. I will continue to leverage my position to protect and support my foreign-born constituents.
In the wake of Immigrant Heritage Month, let’s celebrate the gifts of our varied and vibrant heritages. Our differences make us stronger, and each wave of immigrants brings new life and diversity to our city. Without them, we would stagnate; with them, we thrive. Let us continue to strive for a Boston where the American Dream is achievable for all. I’m proud of how far we’ve come. I’m proud to live in a city where the daughter of a Muslim man from Tunisia and a Polish woman born in a German World War II displacement camp can be elected to represent the people of Boston.
I take that responsibility seriously, and I vow to work with you and with the city council to strive for a better life for all immigrants in Boston and beyond. We have a moral obligation to be that shining example, that city on a hill. We have a moral charge to be a city for all. Let us continue to strive for a land where “opportunity is real, and life is free, [and] equality is in the air we breathe.” I won’t give up fighting for that Boston or for that America — the “great big land of love.” I hope you will join me.
Annissa Essaibi-George was elected to the Boston City Council as an at-large member in 2014. She serves as chair of both the Committee on Education and Committee on Homelessness, Mental Health, Recovery. She lives in Dorchester with her husband Doug and four sons.