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Madame Mayor: Massad reflects on how she got to where she is

She doesn’t remember what she was wearing that day, or how many people were on the ship with her.

She doesn’t remember where her father was, or her brother. She doesn’t remember being sad about getting on the ship, suitcase in hand. She doesn’t remember much of anything, really, about that day in 1960 when she left Lebanon.

What she does remember, though, is standing next to her mother, who stared sadly back at the shore — tears ran down her mother’s face as she waved goodbye. Her eyes turned from her mother’s face and looked to the shore, where the cousins and aunts and uncles who had gathered to say farewell to her family were waving back.

“Poppa decided,” she said, thinking back to that day, “he wanted to take his family and come to America.”

She didn’t understand why, but as she listened to her mother’s sobs and watched her extended family shrink into the distance as the ship headed for America, she knew, even at 5 years old, that something extraordinary was happening.

This is how Mankato Mayor Najwa Masaad came to America. The restaurants, the catering business, the mayor’s race — all of that would come much, much later. The journey that lead to her taking the spot at the head of the City Council table was one filled with intrigue, a trip back to Lebanon, a marriage at age 15, a baby at 16. She’d take cover from bombing raids in Beirut, search for housing with no money, hunt for jobs with no experience.

Before the success, there had to be a struggle.

But somehow, Najwa and her husband, John, not only survived, but thrived. At age 64, Najwa can honestly say the little girl who shipped off from Lebanon with her family in search of a better life found the American dream. Or, more accurately, created her own version of it.

Her motto is: “Everything happens for a reason.”

Well, here’s a story full of reasons why Najwa went from a ship leaving Lebanon to being Mankato’s first female mayor, and it’s first “first-generation American” mayor.

From Lebanon, with love

Najwa says she doesn’t remember much about those first five years in Lebanon. When she thinks of her childhood, she says, she thinks of Mankato.

When they arrived here, they did so with a trail already partially blazed. Najwa’s grandmother had come to the area to visit friends. But when World War II broke out, she was unable to return. So she started a life in the Mankato area, which made Mankato a logical destination for Najwa’s family.

After landing at Ellis Island, the family hopped on a train headed west. When they arrived in Mankato, the family took up residence in an apartment downtown above what is today the Wagon Wheel restaurant.

Najwa made friends quickly with a girl across the hall. She remembers walking to kindergarten at the Lincoln school building, and later to St. John’s Catholic School. She remembers using cardboard boxes to slide down the giant piles of snow collected in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot and going to a little grocery on Front Street owned by her grandfather. She remembers playing in a nearby creek that isn’t there anymore.

Her father worked down the street at Champlin Auto Wash, washing cars for 75 cents per hour. The family wasn’t wealthy, she says, but Najwa didn’t know that.

“We didn’t have much growing up … but we had everything. We had a warm home, wonderful parents, plenty of food — we didn’t need anything else. I can’t say I regret one thing in my life.”

During high school, her parents sent her to Good Counsel, which required tuition. But because her parents couldn’t afford the full cost, Najwa worked as a dishwasher, which knocked $10 per month off tuition.

Then, when Najwa was 15, her parents made a decision that would change her life forever.

Back to Lebanon

“Dad saved up money so my mom could go see her family,” she said. “She had never spoken to her family (since the family left). She couldn’t read, so letters were useless. We tried to get her to talk to her family, but a one-minute phone call was, like, $10 to $15 dollars for an international call.”

Najwa, her mother and her brother took a Pan-Am flight to Lebanon and planned to stay for three months. At the end of those three months, her mother and brother got back on a Pan-Am flight bound for home. Najwa did not. She’d fallen in love.

The first time she’d seen John Massad was at a family gathering. At 27, he was a cousin and part of an extended family she’d never met.

“I saw him,” she said, “and made him fall in love with me.”

It started with coffee. Then a lunch. Then another lunch. Eventually …

“We eloped!” she said with a hint of glee as she remembered that day.

John wrote a letter to Najwa’s father back in Mankato asking for Najwa’s hand in marriage.

“Poppa said, let her come back and finish school first, then it will be fine,” Najwa recalled. “Well, if you know me, I make up my own mind.”

Eloping in Lebanon is different than it is in the U.S. The bride, she says, is taken to someone’s home where the man of the house asks, “Are you here of your own free will.” If the answer is “yes,” that triggers a chain of events that includes contacting a priest, quickly acquiring flowers, arranging a hairdresser, renting a wedding dress and, most importantly, gathering family the next day at a church.

And that’s how Najwa married John.

Someone contacted her father later, by the way, to let him know what had happened.

“He just asked, ‘Is she happy? Is this what she wants?’” Najwa recalled. “And he said ‘OK.’”

She was 15.

Nine months later, their first child, Meray, was born.

They stayed in Lebanon where John was deeply embedded in his family’s restaurant business. A master chef, John was an integral part of the operation and their business had grown considerably.

Meanwhile, life in Mankato carried on, and in 1975 Najwa’s brother was ready to graduate from high school. Najwa, John and Meray traveled to Mankato to attend the graduation and visit family. But when they tried to move back, a civil war in Lebanon that had been brewing for months flared up.

“His family told us to stay in America,” Najwa recalled. “I had planned on living my life in Lebanon. … I had a good life in Lebanon. We owned restaurants.”

Mankato stop, then back to Lebanon

The family’s visit to America turned into a new chapter in their lives. They’d come with a little bit of money but it was dwindling fast. They needed to find work.

“We were looking for jobs but no one would hire us,” she said. “I had no experience. John didn’t speak English. He was a master chef but he didn’t speak English.”

Eventually, Najwa found part-time work at a Bakery in Madison East Center. Later she was hired at a deli in Minnesota State University’s student union. John was given a chance to work a temporary job at Good Counsel, which he turned into a full-time gig.

“They found out what it’s like to have a master chef around,” Najwa said proudly. “He took over the kitchen for them.”

Things were going well in Mankato for the family. Their second daughter, Karla, was born in 1977. But in 1978, John got a call from his father. He was opening another restaurant and he needed John to help him run it. So the family packed everything up and relocated to Lebanon.

While they were there, political tensions that never seemed to go away for good boiled over again.

There was one particular incident she still remembers vividly that illustrates what it felt like to live in a war-torn country.

“I remember I was in the kitchen. And suddenly I heard this horrible noise. It was just like a BOOM!” she recalled. “And people started running. I ran out to the street. Mothers were screaming and crying and one lady said to me, ‘You’ve got to go and get the girls.’ They were at school.

“In Lebanon kids start school at the age of 3. So I’m running, and apparently the sisters (nuns from the school) let the kids out, and I’m running to find Meray and Karla, and then I found Meray holding her sister running. I grabbed them and we came into the house, and then all of a sudden you could hear the BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! The bombs had started. I had no clue, I’m a Mankato girl. We had nothing like this. And I remember John coming to me and saying, ‘This is going to be going on for a while. See what you need and just stay put.’”

They lived on the bottom floor of a four-story cement building. An alleyway ran past their kitchen window, and just off the kitchen there was a small bathroom.

“I remember John saying, ‘When things happen I want you to go in there. And whoever from the building wants to come down, you have them stay in here with you.’”

She remembers nine people crammed into that bathroom one day when explosions started. Seared into her brain is a vision of Meray and Karla tucked under a sink as they listened to the sounds of war outside.

“The kids got to the point where they could tell from the whistle (of the projectile) if it was Syrians or us throwing bombs,” she said. “Isn’t that sad?”

She remembers John dodging snipers some days going to or coming home from work, and having to put barricades up around restaurants to protect from car bombs. They could watch Syrian and Israeli aircraft flying and sometimes would see pilots parachuting to safety. Bombings often left the neighborhood without electricity or plumbing; they’d have to walk to a well to fetch water in 5-gallon buckets.

“And then John said ‘That’s enough,’” she said. “We’re not going to live like this anymore.”

The family contacted the U.S. embassy and arranged to return to America. But because the region was in the midst of turmoil, they had to leave immediately. First on a small boat, then a larger one, and they finally landed on friendly European soil within 24 hours, where they saw an American flag waving at the embassy. They were tired and needed a shower.

“When we got off the boat — and Americans need to understand this — the most beautiful thing in the whole world was that American flag that was waving. It was waving on the shore. And I looked at it and I said to John, ‘Look at the American flag!’ And we got there the Americans looked at us and said, ‘OK, what do you need?’”

Embassy workers helped them book a flight on British Airways from Cypress to London to Chicago and booked them a hotel room.

“Sometimes I just want to shake people,” she said. “I just want them to understand how lucky they are to live in this country. I think people when they leave this country and come back, realize how fortunate they are.”

Once back in southern Minnesota, Najwa and John began looking for a place to open a restaurant. And in 1984 they opened Meray’s downtown. It lasted until 1997 until, as Najwa says, they had to make a difficult decision. At that time they had Meray’s, a gangbusters store in River Hills Mall called Massad’s, and a catering business with an exclusive contract with the city’s civic center.

“We had three businesses, the girls were in college and high school and it was only John and I,” she said about the decision to close Meray’s. “The one that was the hardest to let go of was the one that needed to be let go.”

After that, their businesses continued to thrive, and they opened another one downtown, Olive’s, with a menu very similar to Meray’s. So now they still have that catering business, a hilltop restaurant with a drive-through window has opened and closed (perhaps only temporarily), and they’ve just launched a venture where their wildly popular schwarma sandwiches will be served in Scheels stores.

“His schwarma is all over the country now,” she said. “His face is up at Scheels. He’s achieved his dream.”

Madame Mayor

Najwa’s election as mayor was a first. In fact, no matter who won the election that year, it was going to be a first; the two candidates that survived the primary were Najwa and Bukata Hayes, and Mankato had never had a woman or a black man as mayor.

At the time, she didn’t want to trumpet herself as a pioneer. And she still doesn’t. She’s much more interested, even after putting in a year, in learning how to do the job well.

When she ran for mayor, she said, her vision was simple. She wanted to focus on youth, celebrate the fact we have vast pools of talent graduating from our area colleges and universities every year and figure out ways to keep them in our community instead of exiting for greener pastures.

But a funny thing happened when she took office, she said. She started learning about things she hadn’t thought about before. If you want to keep people here, for example, you need affordable housing. After that, they’ll need help buying their first home. And if we want them to start families, we’ll need to address the shortage in day care openings.

“So the vision I had now has become a bigger challenge,” she said. “How do you work out those challenges? You can’t just snap your fingers. … I’ve been at it a year, and I’ve learned a lot more than I ever thought, and I have so much more to learn.”

Mankato City Council member Mike Laven has worked with four different mayors: Jeff Kagermeier, John Brady and Eric Anderson. He says one thing that characterizes Najwa’s approach is being able to keep meetings on task.

“She’s handled the meetings quite well, I think we set an unofficial world record of 6 minutes one night,” Laven joked.

On the serious side, Laven said Najwa’s ability to keep people like him from drifting off course with tangents is a welcome one.

“I appreciate it greatly for myself, and I think it’s the right way to go about it,” he said.

Laven echoed Najwa’s point about learning the ins and outs of how a city operates. And he said her open-mindedness and willingness to learn have earned trust among her colleagues. She also brings a certain amount of business acumen.

Laven cites the movement around adding an ice sheet in Mankato as one of the reasons why it’s good to have someone like Najwa holding the gavel.

“The folks leading the charge on this new sheet of ice, they think they understand everything because they wear suits and own businesses,” Laven said.

Najwa also owns a business, Laven said, so she’ll be in a unique position — as someone who understands the government issues while being knowledgeable of, and sensitive to, the business side of getting things done — to broker the discussion thoughtfully.

During the campaign, Najwa said someone called her “the total package.” She left that exchange a little unsure why anyone would say that. Then she thought about it a little bit.

She’s an immigrant.

She knows how it feels to not be able to get a job.

She knows how hard it is to raise children.

She knows how to run a business.

“And our population is changing,” she said. “Who better to understand the hardships? We know what it’s like to try to get help. But at the same time, we worked hard. We never asked for a handout.”

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