Her voice cracked and a tear fell as she described watching her dad cry.
A Palestinian, he was looking out at his longtime family olive farm at where Israelis had taken their land. There was a fence and armed Israelis on the other side.
“They’re not going to get that back,” and there was no restitution. “Where’s the justice in that?” Bainbridge Island Mayor Rasham Nassar said, adding that injustice is one of the reasons why she wants to become a lawyer.
Nassar said sometimes the Israelis would cut off water to the farm to “keep them compliant, keep them in fear, show they are in control.”
Her dad was in the U.S. going to the University of Pennsylvania where he met her mom when the Israeli occupation took place so he can’t go back, except for short visits, like that one a few years ago. “His home country is a place he can’t return to,” Nassar said.
Justice is only one of the issues Nassar cares deeply about. There are many others: racial and sexual equity, poverty, sustainability, climate change, growth and many more.
She’s passionate about many of those beliefs because she’s lived them. She grew up in a poor neighborhood and faced racism and sexism. But she’s also been fortunate enough to live some adventures. From riding a bicycle through 27 countries over two years, to raising a family on a self-sustaining farm, Nassar practices what she preaches.
At 38, the first-year law student at Seattle University has held a variety of jobs, including a waitress at Outback Steakhouse and a bartender while getting a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. She’s also been a legal secretary, manager of Flying Yoga, a certified researcher in her father-in-law’s commercial real estate appraisal firm and owner of Bainbridge Island Soap Co.
Nassar was born in San Pablo, Calif., to Palestinian immigrants, the oldest of four children. Her mom was born in Pennsylvania, while her dad earned his master’s degree in pharmacology in Cairo, Egypt.
Nassar faced racism in elementary school, being called things like “camel jockey.” Her dad has a thick Middle Eastern accent, so when he’d pick her up kids would made fun of his dialect. She was so embarrassed she tried to distance herself from him when he came to school.
While that’s overt racism, Nassar said she often feels more subtle racism. She said just having a Middle Eastern name has probably cost her some job interviews. “It was a hurdle I had to jump. In jobs I always felt like I had to work harder” being a woman and a minority.
Nassar is known as a community activist, and she got an early start. She loved music and wanted to play the saxophone. But at her school students had to play clarinet for two years first. Nassar didn’t like that so she argued against the school policy at age 10 – and won.
“I thought I was going to be a musician someday,” she said, adding she eventually also learned to play flute, trombone, guitar … “Music has a very special place in my life,” she said, actually “hitting the road” with a rock band and doing some recording in college.
Because they are Middle Eastern, “My parents struggled to fit in” when they came to the U.S., Nassar said. “They were taken advantage of. They thought they were not entitled to the same rights” as people from here.
For example, when someone stole from her dad’s pharmacy he would not call police. Rasham saw that for years and finally started advocating for her parents. When a contractor put a lean on their business, at age 23 she took him on and negotiated a fair settlement.
Her parents taught her to keep her head down, focus, work hard and do well in school. But she was also active. “I had a super mom. She would take me to all my activities and still have a family meal every night,” Nassar said, adding she was an avid swimmer, starting at age 6.
She went to a poor high school and helped start a water polo team there. She ran the offense, and it was a humbling experience. “Success is in trying. Life is not about the end goal,” she said, adding it’s hard to be the underdog all the time because you “show up and lose” and know the next match will be the same, but you show up and “do it anyway.”
Like most teens, Nassar wasn’t perfect in high school. She said she made her fair share of mistakes and at times was sad, lonely, grieved and depressed. “I was trying to figure out who I was.”
But she learned that failure is one of the best ways to learn how to succeed.
At age 18 she moved out, wanting to relieve her parents of the burden of taking care of her. After paying her bills, she said she had just enough money each month to fill her gas tank using her spare change. “I’d eat Top Ramen the rest of the month,” she said. “I lived a very poor life. You have to live the struggle” to understand those in need.
Nassar went to Berkeley on an academic scholarship, but also played water polo there. She graduated in 2007. She loved the progressive views of the school that enhanced her love of environment. “It was intoxicating. I always want to make change in the world,” she said, adding she’s passionate about nature and loves to “work in dirt.”
After college, Nassar attended a meditation center in Napa Valley, Calif. That’s where she met Trenton Gibbons of Bainbridge Island. She was planning to go to law school, but he asked her to go on an extended bicycle trip with him instead.
After thinking about it, and her family telling her, “law school will always be there for you,” she decided to go. She was already an avid cyclist, since “Berkeley is non-car friendly,” she said. They left from her dad’s pharmacy, with “my parents shoveling provisions on our bikes.”
Nassar has no regrets about delaying law school for 15 or so years. “I have to feel my way through the world. I like to do things nobody expects me to do.”
Nassar said there wasn’t a plan for the bike trip. “We made it up as we went along,” sleeping in a tent and living in the elements. Rattlesnakes and tornadoes in Oklahoma that “appear out of no where” were among the challenges.
Four months later they arrived in New York. They knew they wanted to continue, but with neither having lots of money they looked for the cheapest ticket, which was to Madrid. She said the wind along the coast of Spain was “horrendous and cold,” so she wanted to go somewhere warm. So they took a ferry to Morroco.
While camping outside that city they had their scariest experience of the trip. They were in their tent when suddenly police arrived yelling in Arabic with weapons drawn. The police were checking to see if they were terrorists. They were able to explain that they were simply Americans on a bike trip.
“That’s a foreign concept to a lot of people,” Nassar said, adding they ended up camping at the police station after being convinced it wasn’t safe out in the wild.
They then went through the Balkan countries of southeastern Europe. Nassar said that was her favorite part of the trip. She said in the states they rode 40-50 miles a day, but they probably rode only 30 a day in Europe.
The reason – coffee. They serve it in tiny cups – not the 24 ouncers you can get here. “So there were more frequent stops,” she said.
Another reason is the friendly people. “They want to pull you into their house, and you’re not allowed to leave for several days” until you meet the whole family. One man brought them into his cardboard box of a house for dinner, and the only meal was a shared piece of bread. “Most people in the world struggle; live paycheck to payheck. India so poor, but their open joy is something that can’t be bought,” she said.
Speaking of India, that’s where Trenton proposed to her during their bike trip. They were waiting “forever” at a train station in India, before finally catching one at 2 a.m. It was Aug. 17, 2013. Nassar wasn’t too happy before that. “This makes this a whole lot better,” she said, adding they were married later at his parents house on Bainbridge Island.
Moving to BI
In 2012, the couple moved to a 6-acre farm on Bainbridge Island, the community where Trenton was born and raised. After living in metro areas most of her life, “It was a pretty big difference and hard to be away from family,” Nassar said. It didn’t take long for her to make it home as she immersed herself in the culture and found it matched many of her own values. “It was sort of starting over,” she said, adding she decided to try new things and opportunities.
She was excited about taking over a farm after their European travels as she wanted to live off the land. “I fell in love with taking care of animals,” she said. While now they only have geese and ducks, they used to have goats. Nassar said they might get goats again now that sons Mojave, 4, and Atlas, 3, Gibbons are older and could help take care of them.
“Goats are a handful,” she said, adding more than once they got through the fence when the electricity wasn’t humming and had to be escorted home by BI police. The goats were used for milk and, not one to be wasteful, Nassar learned how to make soap out of the byproducts and started BI Soap Co. “Lard is a great base oil for soap,” she said.
Also on the farm they have a greenhouse, where they grow tomatoes, eggplant, peppers … They take their “summer harvest and turn it into canned food to survive over winter,” making jams and sauces, too.
“A lot of the world still lives this way. It’s almost like a step back in time,” she said, again referring to her European trip. “They haven’t lost contact with their old world. It’s something we need to return to. Their carbon footprint is so much lower. I really admire their value in it. Our culture is missing that.”
Nassar said by relying on themselves their family has more freedom. “We practice these values that we preach,” she said. “We try to be as self-sufficient as possible.”
She also has continued with sports as an adult. After playing water polo at Berkeley, she also swam San Francisco Bay, and later learned to scuba dive.
“I always like to challenge myself athletically,” she said. Recently, she competed in her first ultra marathon, running 34 miles in 7½ hours.
“I owe that to my husband” (Trenton Gibbons), she said. “One night out of the blue he said, ‘I want to run one-hundred miles in one day.” Nassar wanted to get back in shape after having her second son so she started running a few miles a day. “It’s a great way to see the island and the great trail systems,” she said.
Years ago, Nassar helped write a book on sustainable water resources and that “planted a seed in environmentalism” for her. In 2016, after moving to BI, she met people in a citizens group who were advocating to preserve the Suzuki property against a development project.
“It astonished me to see how much the community values nature,” she said. “The environment doesn’t have a voice.” That inspired her to become politically active. She attended council meetings and issued public comments, “shaking and sweating when doing so,” she said.
After that involvement she got a phone call asking her to consider running for City Council. Out of a sense of adventure she filed. “I never saw myself as a politician,” she said, adding former council members Kol Medina and Ron Peltier helped guide her. “I never thought of winning,” but she did as her values reflected the community. “The island loves the environment and preservation.”
Nassar said the hardest decision she has had to make concerned the Critical Areas Ordinance. “I always take care to vote my values, even if the opposition is vocal,” she said.
And this one was. “It was wildly unpopular with some factions of our community,” she said. They said the law was unfair and an imposition on private property owners. “I was told there may be some political consequences for that vote, but you make that vote anyway. It’s what’s in the best interest of BI as a whole. I suffered political backlash for that for most of 2019.”
Her term is up at the end of this year, and she hasn’t decided yet if she’s running again.
As mayor, Rasham feels it’s her responsibility to keep the council on track. “The seven-member body has a diversity of opinion, and that’s a great thing,” she said. But she now listens to their opinions and sees where commonality and differences lie. She hopes by bringing those to the council’s attention, they will work on issues step by step to come to consensus. “I consider everyone’s opinion and figure out the best path forward,” she said.
The City Council is well-known for four-hour meetings with everyone sharing their opinion on every issue. Nassar said she hopes their new city manager, Blair King, can help her keep the council on task. “He’s very professional,” she said. “The future looks really great. He’s been responsive to the community and open to their scrutiny and concerns.”
Her goal as she finishes out her term is to focus on climate change and preserve the rural nature of the island. “It’s a politically charged climate,” she said of BI. “I listen to both sides of the equation,” side with the majority and don’t react to threats or consequences. “Less than that would not be leadership,” she said.