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Saudi-Born Immigrant Seeks US Political Office in California - 2004-08-10

Arab American Ferial Masry was born in Saudi Arabia and teaches about government in a U.S. high school. The immigrant is practicing what she teaches and is seeking political office in California.

She was born in Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet and destination for millions of Muslims during the annual pilgrimage. Ferial Masry, who once ran an Islamic school in California, is on a different kind of journey in this U.S. election year. The 55-year-old teacher is running for a seat in the California state assembly.

She faces an uphill battle. Her opponent is the wife of a popular incumbent who is prevented from running again by a term-limit law.

But if Mrs. Masry wins, she will be the first Saudi-born elected official in the United States, and one of a handful of Arab-American legislators.

Outspoken in politics, she has lively discussions at home with her three children, including her son, Omar, who just returned from a year in Iraq with the U.S. military. An Army sergeant, he worked in a civil affairs unit rebuilding schools and hospitals. Mrs. Masry says she supported him and his fellow troops, but was against the war.

"Because of the war, I was very active anti-war protesting, and later on I decided to join the Democratic Party," she says. "And I thought this is time to go and make the change from within and take a positive step instead of just protesting."

She became active in the local Democratic party and was elected to its central committee. The Democrat who was running in the district later became ill, so party officials asked her to replace him.

Although she is running for state office, she often turns her thoughts to international issues, and says events in the Middle East cast a long shadow, even in California. She has reached out to Jewish voters and has won the support of some of them.

"I am very pragmatic, and a person who has a vision," she says. "And I find a lot of Jews, actually, they're moderate. And a lot of them understand that Israel, sooner or later, is going to be living in the [Middle Eastern] neighborhood, and it cannot live in a neighborhood [where] there is a lot of hatred and violence, because it's not going to be winnable for anybody."

She says on domestic issues, her thinking is in line with the Democratic Party on issues like health insurance. She thinks that government has a role in making sure that all Americans have access to it.

She also believes that Democrats do more for the middle class than their Republican counterparts, and the middle class, she says, is essential for a stable and successful democracy.

"Because of my travel all around the world, I saw if you don't have a middle class which is powerful and strong, you're going to have a banana republic, frankly," she says.

Mrs. Masry is outspoken and says she has always been that way, even as child. When she was 10 years old, her mother sent her and her two sisters to Egypt to get an education. She later graduated from Cairo University with a degree in journalism, and completed a master's degree in California.

Through it all, she says she has been a rebel.

"I have no fear. I'm very gutsy since I was young," she says. "I've never been afraid of the oppressive system in the Middle East. I always speak my mind. And also another thing, I know who I am. And I know my history. I know my background, and I'm very proud of who I am. And I feel wherever I go, I can really contribute and make a difference."

She admits she faces an uphill battle in the November election.

"I know politics, it's a lot of money," she says. "It's true I came late, I don't have a lot of money. But I have a lot of people who believe in me."

She thinks her opponent, a conservative Republican, will have trouble getting support from independent voters and moderates. She adds that if she loses, there will always be opportunities in the future.

"Because I don't give up, and I will establish the name and the principle and my reputation, and I think there is always another time," she says.

Ferial Masry says she is not running just to win but also to break down barriers, like the barrier that separates Democrats and Republicans, and the cultural wall that keeps many Arab Americans from being active in politics.

Beyond that, she hopes to bridge the gap between the United States and Arab world, and to show Arab women what can be accomplished by an outspoken Arab American counterpart.