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‘We knew her when’
As Alaa Basatneh sat in the gallery for President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union Address—a mere 15 seats away from first lady Michelle Obama—she couldn’t stop thinking about the Supreme Court justices.
“It felt surreal. The energy in that room,” Basatneh said. “All of the lawmakers, the officials, the cabinet, the justices. I kept looking at the justices and thinking, I want to see expressions on their faces. They’re supposed to be neutral.”
Basatneh can be forgiven for being a little shell-shocked. Less than a month earlier, she had crossed the stage at Commencement, having earned her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Northeastern Illinois University.
A few weeks after collecting her degree, Basatneh took a call from U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ilinois), inviting her to be his personal guest for Obama’s speech on Jan. 12. Not that he just picked her name out of a hat. Basatneh is featured in a documentary, “#chicagoGirl,” and has earned international attention for her work fighting the Assad regime by organizing protests in Syria, mapping escape routes and sharing videos.
“Children are being tortured,” said Basatneh, who was born in Syria and moved to the United States with her parents when she was 6 months old. “It doesn’t matter if it’s in Syria or Africa—it’s happening on our planet. People need to advocate for one another. This is what humanity is about. If we live in a bubble and shut ourselves down from the rest of the world then we are not America, we are not what we say we are about. We value human rights, and we need to stand up for our beliefs.”
It’s that kind of spirit that inspired Quigley to offer his only guest ticket to Basatneh, a woman who has been fearless in fighting for the people of Syria and against religious prejudices at home. “Over the past few months, we have seen a shocking and alarming rise in hateful rhetoric against Muslims in our nation,” Quigley said in a statement announcing Basatneh as his guest. “Alaa is an incredible example of how to make an impact in our world and deserves to be celebrated. By attending President Obama’s State of the Union Address, I hope that Alaa’s story can help inspire love and compassion over fear and discrimination.”
Naturally, Basatneh accepted Quigley’s invitation and flew to Washington, D.C., for a three-day whirlwind of private receptions with senators, interviews with national and international media and, of course, President Obama’s address.
“I got emotional when President Obama talked about Syria and the need to distinguish the difference between terrorism and Muslims and the need to work to collectively get rid of ISIS and the extremists on the ground in Syria,” said Basatneh, who graduated from Maine East High School and Wilbur Wright College before enrolling at Northeastern in 2014. “His speech was very positive, very encouraging to Millennials. He touched on a lot of things internationally and in our nation, and I felt like my generation needed to hear that speech and to keep looking at things in a positive way.”
Among the highlights for Basatneh—and there were many—was meeting U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), the first Muslim elected to Congress. “He told me that he’s been aware of my activism and that he’s really happy about what I’m doing and how I’m representing the Muslim-American woman in society,” she said. “That gave me a push to keep going despite the negative comments I hear on the street because of my headscarf.”
Basatneh, now 24, credits her parents for raising her in a home where politics and social justice were near-constant topics of conversation. After graduating from Northeastern, Basatneh gave her academic stole to her father. “He gave up everything back home just to see my brother and I grow up in a free, democratic nation,” she said. “Without my parents, I couldn’t do even a fourth of what I’ve done. They’re very supportive, very open-minded.”
That base led to success in the classroom at Northeastern, where Basatneh’s professors raved about her enthusiasm and effort. “Some of my students are nothing less than outstanding, some are wise beyond their years, and then there are those who make an everlasting impression giving you pause and taking your breath away,” Political Science Instructor Gregory Jackson said. “Alaa Basatneh, I believe without even realizing, fits into all three of these student categories. Her passion for scholarly work, human rights, social justice and service will lead to us all telling people we knew her when. She is already well on her way down that road.”
That’s high praise, but that’s her trajectory. After chatting with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and sitting for an interview with the BBC in Washington, Basatneh stayed on the road for a series of speeches and talks in New Mexico, California and Idaho before accepting her first full-time job as an editorial coordinator for Fusion, an ABC News subsidiary that is geared toward the Millennial market.
“My goal is to get students inspired and motivated,” said Basatneh, who plans to pursue a graduate degree in public administration once she is settled into her new home city of Miami. “The education I got from Northeastern really prepped me for everything I’m doing. Walking down the halls of the Capitol, everyone I’m meeting and talking to, I had background knowledge, and that’s because of the professors at Northeastern.”
And then there’s her greater goal, the one that led to a documentary on her life and a ticket to D.C.’s most exclusive speech of the year. “I want to see a free and a democratic Syria,” Basatneh said. “I want to be able to see children going to school in a free nation, getting a good education, and having an education system that empowers and motivates students.”