Back to Roots helps descendants of Lebanese emigrants discover their motherland
Beirut - Their forefathers emigrated decades ago looking for greener pastures, security and work opportunities, leaving a country torn by conflict and instability. They are young Lebanese born and raised abroad, many of whom have never returned to the land of their ancestry and know Lebanon only from stories from relatives or in the media.
“I wanted to learn about the real Lebanon, not just the country that my dad was describing to me,” said 23-year-old Dalia, a Lebanese-Canadian. “I wanted to get to know it from the inside, not as an outsider, and I didn’t want to feel like a stranger to Lebanon anymore.”
Dalia was among 14 people participating in a two-week immersion programme for American and Canadian Lebanese organised by Back to Roots (BTR), a non-governmental organisation aimed at giving descendents of Lebanese emigrants a deeper knowledge of their mother country.
“The programme is a mix of three different activities, including visits to touristic places, meetings with civil society activists and politicians and lectures on important topics in the country,” Maya Gebeily, BTR assistant director and alumnus of the programme, said in an interview.
In addition to showcasing Lebanon’s natural beauty and entertainment activities, the programme aims at familiarising participants with the country’s complexities through meetings with advocacy organisations and lectures on economic and political issues, including the civil war and inter-religious dialogue.
“Our mission is to create ‘cedar leaders’, or ambassadors of Lebanon around the world, so whether they would want to come back to Lebanon or stay abroad, they will have a well-informed and deep vision of the country that they can share,” Gebeily said.
Gebeily, 23, a daughter of Lebanese emigrants from Washington who participated in the first edition of BTR in 2010, settled in Lebanon two years ago where she works as a journalist, a job she had never considered when she studied international politics at Georgetown University.
She said an increasing number of youth were interested in the programme, which already has 70 alumni, many of whom have returned to Lebanon for internships or exchange studies.
“The mission of our programme is not to make people move back to Lebanon but we hear a lot of saying ‘I want to move back. I want to understand what it takes to move back.’ “This year, we had to select 14 among 65 applicants. It is getting harder to choose, which makes us think whether we should expand the programme or make two editions per year,” Gebeily said.
The participants, who have had limited experiences with Lebanon, arrive with an impression formed mostly through their parents. That impression is often that Lebanon is a very dangerous place or, for those who have been here before, that Lebanon is about partying, fun and nightlife.
Each participant had his own incentive for joining the programme. “I was doing a presentation on how Europeans and North Americans see their identity versus the Lebanese diaspora when I came across ‘Back to Roots’ on Instagram, so I thought I might try to apply as well,” said Ibrahim Arabi, a law student from Canada.
For Lebanese-American Anthony Aslou, it was the mixed feelings about Lebanon that he wanted to sort out. “The programme allowed me to see the country in various lights. I saw the good, a lot of good, parts that I didn’t think I would see. But I also saw the bad, which I knew and studied about, namely politics,” the international security graduate student said.
According to Gebeily, the BTR experience could be life-changing, as it was for her. “We try to give them (participants) an alternative vision than what their families, or any immigrant family, say that there is no economic opportunity there, that ‘I left that place because there was nothing for me there, so why do you want to go back?’” she said.
“We try to show that there is opportunity in Lebanon with the civil society and that things are moving in the economy, in technology, etc.”
Being immersed in the cultural, social and political aspects of life in Lebanon has definitely helped participants come to terms with their mixed heritage and given them a clearer vision and better understanding of their ancestors’ homeland.
“My view of Lebanon has changed in a more positive way. At this point, I would certainly come back much more often… In the past, I used to say I would always retire in Lebanon but now I would certainly live here regardless of retirement,” Aslou commented.
Arabi said he was nicely surprised to discover that Lebanon had an active and strong civil society, which he said helped him shape his post-graduation plans. “I know that after I’m done with law school the first thing I want to do is come here and provide whatever ability that I’ve learned in school to serve Lebanon. BTR programme and the people that we’ve met have definitely helped me gauge my feelings for the country,” he said.
Dalia said she is seriously considering quitting her job in Canada and moving to Lebanon for her master’s studies.
“I kind of started understanding the love that everybody has for the country. It feels like home now,” she said. “Coming back will have a purpose, because the people need you, and I realised how little I knew about Lebanon.”
Although there are no reliable figures, the Lebanese diaspora is estimated at approximately 14 million people, far more than the 4 million population of Lebanon.
Lebanon has witnessed several waves of emigration, with the first ones arriving in the Americas as early as the 19th century. The 1975- 90 civil war triggered the most recent big wave, with many Lebanese emigrating to Western countries. Work opportunities now attract many Lebanese to Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.
After losing several generations of its population to war and emigration, the question remains whether Lebanon will able to recover their descendants. Programmes such as BTR aim to help the country do just that.