ALUMNI SERIES: A journey of empowerment

Alumni spotlight Mazi Melesa Pilip

By Jacob Kamaras

From Ethiopian refugee to Israeli citizen to elected official in the United States, Mazi Melesa Pilip has been on a journey of being empowered in her younger years to empowering others.

“Life is all about opportunities,” says Pilip, an alum of University of Haifa who currently serves as a member of the Nassau County Legislature from the 10th district. “Who’s going to be the first one to open the door and believe in you?”

Pilip’s climb up the social mobility ladder began in 1991 with Operation Solomon, the covert Israeli military operation to airlift Ethiopian Jews to Israel. She was 12 years old at the time. Non-stop flights of 35 Israeli aircraft, including Israeli Air Force C-130s and El Al Boeing 747s, transported 14,325 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 36 hours. The sight of the Israeli jets provided a window into Pilip’s successes that would follow.

“I knew from looking at the sky that a bright future was waiting for me,” Pilip says.

According to Pilip, seeing a female IDF soldier during Operation Solomon would inspire her own enlistment in the military, where she served as a gunsmith.

Subsequently, understanding that higher education would be the linchpin in her pathway to advancement, she enrolled in University of Haifa and earned her bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy.

University of Haifa prides itself on the rich diversity of its student body, welcoming international students from around the world, as well as domestic students from Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Baha’i, Druze, and Bedouin communities. Pilip shares this sense of pride, noting how the University was one of the first institutions in Israel to open its doors to Ethiopian immigrants and, in her words, “give us the tools to succeed.”

She adds, “University of Haifa gave me the tools and confidence to know that I can do anything I want in life.”

“If there was any extra help needed, like transportation or food, it was available for us,” she says. “University of Haifa was actively engaged in our success. I was very empowered by the University.”

The college years also marked Pilip’s first venture into leadership, as the chair of the National Ethiopian Israeli Student Organization.

She met her husband in Haifa, but it was always his plan to return to the U.S. following his studies in Israel. In 2005, they made the move.

Pilip’s path to political leadership started with lectures she gave across the U.S. on her experience as an Ethiopian immigrant to Israel, hoping to inspire younger generations to “take a chance and never give up.” Her responsibilities as a mother of seven eventually meant she couldn’t travel around the country — but that didn’t preclude her from pursuing involvement in local politics in Nassau County.

“I’m a big believer that if you don’t like what you see in society, you have to be involved,” she says. “I hate complaining from the outside.”

Pilip initiated her career in politics by volunteering for Pedram Bral, who was running for Mayor in Great Neck, N.Y. Following Bral’s victory, she became a member of the Village of Great Neck’s Architectural Review Board. Later, she was nominated to run as the Republican candidate for the Nassau County Legislature seat for the 10th District.

At the time of her campaign in 2021, Pilip had five children and was pregnant with twins. And yet, she would go on to score a landmark victory for a Republican candidate in the area.

“I said, ‘Guys, I’m not here to complain, I’m here to work hard.’ And I did the impossible,” Pilip recalls.

Pilip garnered national attention earlier this year as the Republican nominee in the race to fill the Congressional seat vacated by the expelled former U.S. Rep. George Santos. She ran an intense and competitive campaign. Although she lost the election to now-U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, she is proud that she refused to “let fear hold me back” in her pursuit of the seat in Congress.

Today, in her continued capacity as a local elected official in Nassau County, Pilip embraces a practical and action-oriented mentality — reflected in her efforts to upgrade bridges and roads, and to be a voice for her constituents.

“I don’t like to talk, I like to deliver, and get the job done,” she says.

Pilip maintains her focus on empowerment, including encouraging every citizen to register to vote.

“Your vote is an important voice, and you need to use it,” she says.

She also has a special place in her heart for her time at University of Haifa, an institution which she believes debunks the trope that Israel is an “apartheid state.”

“University of Haifa is the most diverse university in Israel,” Pilip says. “It’s a mixed place and everybody has the same opportunity. In fact, some of my best friends were Arab Muslims. That’s what Israel is all about.”

Learn more about Mazi Pilip here.