When seated in any one of the flimsy booths found in Fantastic Pizza, one can see right into the open kitchen and right into the lives of one very close-knit family. Chrome pipes and large pieces of metal gadgetry stick out from behind the half wall beyond the counter. Loud, lively blurts of Arabic volley back and forth as busy bodies are frantically putting together someone’s order.
The phone rings, and the man with the grey ponytail answers promptly.
“Fantastic, can I help you? Small? Large? What is this, delivery? It has to be eight dollars to be delivery. Okay.”
“Chicken and onion! Chicken and onion!” Men in the kitchen run this was and that. While these people are family, they still have to maintain their business.
Magda Shabo excuses herself to answer the phone, jotting down extra tuna and no tomatoes. “Light Italian? Okay,” she says with a thick Eastern European accent, her large brown eyes glaring down at her notepad. Her hair is thrown together in a sloppy bun, and bright ruby lipstick accents her lips that are pursed with concentration.
Her brother appears from the kitchen with a large delivery bag, grabs a liter of soda from the freezer, and heads out the door on foot into subfreezing temperatures. Clearly, this is all very routine.
While this quaint pizza shop appears almost mechanical in its movements and rigid in the shouts of orders to be filled, underneath the surface lies a history filled with deep family connections.
Magda was one of the last members of the family to leave Lebanon, fleeing a country fraught with war to continue her education. She arrived in Worcester ten years ago this March and can still readily recall the strong emotions that brought her so many miles to be with her family.
“I had to unite with my family. I hadn’t seen my brother in almost thirty-seven years,” she said after quickly doing the math on her notepad. She maintains a strong air of gratitude toward the support her family has given her, and retrospectively admits that getting here was a lot easier said than done.
“I didn’t have to struggle when I came here,” Magda said modestly after describing her rigorous travels. “I had my family already here, but the first ones to come? They had it very hard.” The first immigrants in her family to come to Worcester started a grocery store and were robbed on multiple occasions, forcing them to live long periods with no income.
Her relatives soon got help from fellow immigrants and learned the trade that would evolve into Fantastic Pizza. A generation later, Magda’s plans were a little different.
“I was dreaming of coming to the United States to continue my education,” she said. Magda had pursued a degree in mechanical engineering while still in Lebanon, hoping to further that foundation in the United States; bureaucratic red tape would prove to be a hindrance, one that may have drastically changed her life.
“It took my mother eleven years to become a citizen,” said Magda. Only then could she get her own green card and join her family. She spent 5 more years in Lebanon waiting for her dreams to become reality.
“Many countries opened their borders during the war,” she said. Magda fled to Sweden and lived with her sister; others went all over Europe or to Australia. She was then finally able to make the last leg of her journey. While her age and inexperience in her field kept her from finding an entry-level job in the United States, she remained determined.
“I already spoke decent English. They teach sciences in Lebanon in English,” she explained. Magda began taking English as a second language at Quinsigamond Community College in order to enroll at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
“WPI was a good opportunity for me. I took classes in Computer Science. I really tried.” Sadly, the newness in Magda’s life was becoming too stressful, and she quit her schooling. “If there was one thing I have regretted since being here, it’s that,” she said with sadness in her voice. “Of course there are going to be those moments.”
“First I thought, maybe I didn’t struggle – fight for my goals,” she said. “I came here very late. If I had been able to come sooner, my life would have been very different. All my plans changed, and so my life changed.”
“[During this time], two years ago, I was so stressed out. Now I’m much more relaxed,” Magda said. Her eyes looked calm, even as the phone on the table began to ring again. Even at 4 p.m. on a Sunday, Fantastic is getting calls left and right.
Both on a personal level and concerning her fellow Lebanese family and countrymen, Magda holds firm to the belief that things turned out as they should. “They do what they need to do to live. They have the courage to walk, even if it’s a hard walk, especially for the family.”
It’s clear that her family has been a steady, driving force in her life, and continues to be to this day. Another break in our interview, and she is back in the kitchen, yelling for her brother, who has just come back from the cold.
“We always stick together,” Magda said of her family, her eyes lighting up and almost becoming teary. “If I was in another state, I might find a job, but I can’t leave my family. We have a culture, and I can’t be without my family.”