Annissa Essaibi George stood in front of a crowd of hundreds of parents and students. She peered at the television cameras and directed her words at the mayor of Boston, who had recently announced cuts to the city’s public schools budget.
“Mayor Flynn, we’re going to be voters soon and we will remember that you did this when the time comes,” she said.
It was the early 1990s, and Essaibi George was a sophomore in high school. At home that evening, the 15-year-old declared: “I want to be mayor someday,” she now recalls.
Her father, Ezzeddine Essaibi, shook his head.
“A girl with an Arab name will win nothing in this city,” he replied.
It wasn’t that Essaibi didn’t believe in his daughter. He was otherwise her biggest cheerleader, belting words of encouragement in his French-Arabic accent from the sideline of her sports games, and securing a gig in security at Boston University so she could have the opportunity to attend tuition-free. It was just that the Boston that Essaibi — a Muslim from Tunisia — had known since the 1970s was not a place that openly accepted people like him, much less voted them in as mayor.
Yet, three decades later, Annissa Essaibi George is one of two candidates still vying for a mayoral seat that has been won only by white men of Irish or Italian descent in the last 91 years. Her opponent, Michelle Wu, is Asian American. Essaibi George’s father did not live to see this historic day, having passed away in 2010 at the age of 63.
“It’s not that he didn’t believe in me. That was just his experience as a foreigner in Boston,” said Essaibi George in an interview this month with the Globe. “Today we call people immigrants, right? New Americans, new Bostonians. My father was a foreigner and was treated like one.”
Hers is, perhaps, an unlikely lineage for the candidate considered by some to be old Boston’s pick for mayor. After all, Essaibi George, born and raised in Dorchester’s Savin Hill neighborhood, has worn her Boston accent — with its dearth of Rs and abundance of Ahs — like a badge of honor throughout the campaign.
It marks her as local. So do her early memories. From the Robert Ryan playground she used to frequent in her youth, she pointed at the community center being demolished and recounted how she once got in a fist fight with a group of girls there. Looking in the other direction, she gestured toward her family’s nearby triple-decker that once burned down, but now houses her mother (third floor), sister (second floor), and a campaign outpost (first floor).
“These places, those experiences, even the negative ones, have made me who I am,” she said.
Essaibi George has only known as home the streets of Dorchester, where she grew up and still lives to this day. But her father was born an ocean away to a large family in a town of 5,000 in the north African country of Tunisia. While studying computer science in Paris, he met a young Polish-American named Barbara Ogrodniczuk, who was utterly lost on her way to the theater one June night. He offered to show her the way, kindling a romance that began with a Charlie Chaplin movie that evening and culminated in a marriage visa two years later in 1972. Essaibi followed Ogrodniczuk back to Dorchester — 4,198 miles away from home — where her parents had settled as refugees from a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II.
Barbara Essaibi recalled those early days recently: “I’m an only child. He didn’t speak any English. Everything had moved so fast. You could say my parents were a bit...” She paused, choosing her next word carefully, “protective about the whole situation.”
With a bushy black beard, olive skin, and Arabic lilt, Essaibi stood out in the sea of Polish immigrants that filled the neighborhood’s triple-deckers. He enrolled in English classes at the Newman School but never shook the habit of saying the French “donc” in place of the English “so.” He battled and lost a fight with his staunchly Catholic parents-in-law to raise his four children as Muslim. He took on a wide array of jobs: convenience store clerk, taxi driver, and eventually security guard. For a while, he worked as a doorman at the Omni Parker House downtown, ending the night with pockets stuffed with wads of dollar bills from tips.
“Every decision he made, it was obvious it was to put his kids on the best possible path,” said his younger brother Lotfi Saibi, who joined his brother in Boston in 1980. “The first generation always sacrifices the most.”
Essaibi regularly dodged racial epithets — like “towelhead” and “terrorist” — that only intensified after the 9/11 attacks. He shared his love and skill for soccer with a team of comparatively novice neighbors. He worked to hide his accent, but kept the door open to anyone with even the vaguest ties to his homeland.
“Our house might as well have been the Tunisian embassy,” said Essaibi George.
Like many immigrants, he straddled the divide between the world he was born into and the one that became his home. All the while, his children were growing up as native Bostonians, their Arabic first names doing little to stave off the dropped Rs and a devotion to the New England Patriots.
Always a flashpoint growing up, the tension of that duality has flared up in the final stretch of the mayoral race. When Essaibi George talks up the fact that she was “born and raised” here, her opponents wonder if the candidate counts newer arrivals from far away — like Wu, born in Chicago — as somehow less fully Bostonian. Left unsaid, but implicit, is the question: How would such a calculus apply to her own immigrant father? Essaibi George vehemently rejects that premise: “I think my Dorchester upbringing does add value to my ability to do some of this work. But I don’t think it disqualifies Michelle. Because that would say it would disqualify my dad, who wasn’t born and raised here, right. But it does give me a different experience and perspective on the city.”
“On the election night victory party, yeah, all right, I laid into [the accent]. I’m a Boston girl giving a victory speech on a preliminary night. We had some fun with it,” she said. “It’s just ironic that my father had a very different accent from everyone here, and he was discriminated against as a result. And now I say things in a funny way, but it’s the local way, and all of sudden, it is not just a deficit, but a symbol of racism.”
This generational shift extends to how Essaibi George identifies compared with her father. Both Wu and Essaibi George are considered women of color, a noteworthy detail in a city with a reputation for intolerance. But as a first-generation Arab American with Catholic beliefs, Essaibi George has long struggled to embrace and define that racial identity.
“When it comes to people of color, sometimes Arabs count, sometimes they do not. I’ve had some tremendous privilege because of how I present, which is different from my father and even some of my siblings. It allows me lots of opportunities to be in lots of different spaces and rooms,” she said. “My racial identity has always been difficult to pin down. Which box I should check on a census. I’d rather just talk about my work.”
She has plenty of work cut out for her in the final two weeks of the race. In a recent Suffolk University/Boston Globe/NBC10 poll of likely voters, she trailed Wu by daunting 32 percentage points. A mere 7 percent said they remained undecided.
“Win or lose, I am fulfilling the American Dream just by getting this far. A dream my father thought was literally impossible just a few years ago, but did so much to make happen,” she said.
Saibi, Ezzeddine’s brother, who intends to make the long journey from Tunis to Boston for Election Day, put it more bluntly: “He’d be in full-on tears every time he saw her on stage.”