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The search for Lebanon’s new diaspora

Between never again and forever yours

by Thomas Schellen

Two months after the Beirut blast and one year into political and economic disruptions of local identities, the people of Lebanon are finding themselves divided in yet another invisible way. Some of the better-to-do individuals and families are proclaiming ‘never again’, and mean that they already have, or are seeking, to emigrate; their economic realities and very existences – homes in upscale Beirut, residential developments in the downtown, and the Achrafieh district, literally shattered.

Cuddling his infant son in the lobby of a midmarket hotel in Verdun in late August, Ahmad is a chance encounter and example of such an émigré. Giving only his first name, he says he left his home in the Saifi Village after it was destroyed in the August 4 explosion, will move within days to join a family business in Western Africa, and intends to never come back or create emotional bonds to his ancestral land in his young children.

The people on the other side of the 2020 divide appear to fall into one of two categories: the many comprise the first category of people – a national majority across all communities and religious affiliations – who have the burning desire to live in an easier and more secure country, but lack the top educational credentials or economic means to leave. The others – perhaps looked upon by their peers as the committed Lebanese, the idealists or just the fools – constitute the apparent minority who refuse to give up on Lebanon.

But those who depart and those who stay for one reason or another are not all the people that one must qualify under the category of Lebanese. By popular reckoning in this country over many years, the largest category of Lebanese is the diaspora. The diaspora is an allegiance group to Lebanon that left the country as fortune hunters or brain-drain, career seekers at some point from the late 19th century up to – but not necessarily including – the current traumatized wave of existentially disgruntled political leavers, and disgusted economic emigrants.

A no longer narrowly defined term in today’s context of global refugee movements, the word diaspora has for about 2000 years been associated with the dispersion of a people from their land of destiny – forced emigration under ideologically, politically, or religiously oppressive systems. Under this religious concept of divinely determined, involuntary migration, the dispersion and banishment of chosen people led to the creation of the diaspora as an identity which, for a long time, was theologically connoted and overwhelmingly understood to mean the Jewish Diaspora.

The use of the term diaspora in the age of the global mobility revolution (in the sense used by Venezuelan thinker and global influencer Moises Naim) has gradually widened in academic research to include more than a dozen diasporas or emigrant groups with diverse political, ideological, economic and even corporate determinants. However, if one wants to differentiate the diaspora from expatriates or migrants, the proper hallmark may be their attachment, reasonable or unreasonable, to their ancestral land.

Expectations versus reality

This attachment could be romantic or even reach the level of allegiance to a myth that has little semblance to the territory in question. But more importantly, self-understanding of diaspora would involve a personal commitment to the support of one’s distant family relations, non-kin persons belonging to one’s community in the ancestral land and, if needed, economic restoration of the homeland at large. In this sense, the Lebanese migrants who left their villages as much as 130 years ago and moved to Australia, the Americas, and Western Africa, formed the Lebanese diaspora long before the Lebanese conflict of the 1970s created a wave of emigration to prominent destinations such as France, Canada and other developed countries.

Public declarations (if less so, actual policies) did not tire in declaring the importance of links to the diaspora and of diaspora-generated economic inflows through remittances, savings, and investments into real estate and business ventures, as well as human capital inflows through highly-qualified “brain-drainers” who returned to Lebanon after successful careers of one or several decades abroad.

The visible and measurable benefits of diaspora involvement for creating greater productivity, however, do not live up to the high expectations, and the role of remittances has been questioned. “While remittances have helped the Lebanese economy absorb shocks, there is no evidence that they have served as an engine of growth,” a 2018 IMF paper observed.

Furthermore, efforts for better organization of the diaspora outreach were proclaimed in the 2010s, as the Lebanese Diaspora Energy (LDE) series of conferences was instituted under the initiative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with objectives to “celebrate” diaspora success, “promote” Lebanese heritage, “establish” connections and “explore” new [economic] opportunities.

The last emigration wave

The six years of LDE activity have produced conferences, dinners, seminars and social events galore, in Lebanon as in foreign locales with high concentrations of expatriates and Lebanese- descent persons. The tangible gains of such diaspora outreach efforts, however, seem to have been at least partially nullified by systemic shortfalls and political entanglements, just as the countless suggestions for growth strategies and structural reforms in papers authored for international development institutions fall on barren soil.

Inversely, in the aftermath of the catastrophic Beirut port explosion, the humanitarian assistance and good will provided to Lebanon saw an immediate increase and included those coordinated by diaspora organizations. Executive, investigating the state of the Lebanese diaspora’s outreach to the local community post-port explosion and financial collapse, under a sponsorship collaboration with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Foundation, finds that the generous outpouring of support far exceeded traditional, or regular, ties between the diaspora and the afflicted, local community.

The current and latest wave of traumatized, emigration-seeking Lebanese may not be enticed into an easy affinity with their country of recurring shocks and political disappointments – or may not be willing to support and invest in this country before reforms have proven successful over many years. A redefinition of the Lebanese diaspora, and ways to remain meaningfully connected to it, may be the need of the next few years.

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Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail

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