The view from abroad

By MainGate Staff
Fall 2020/Winter 2021

There are more Lebanese living outside than inside the country—by some estimates, there are 12 million Lebanese in the diaspora and 4 million in Lebanon. That’s been the case for so long that it’s become possible to think of Lebanon as existing beyond its own borders, as no more a Mediterranean coastal state than a collection of diaspora communities in the Gulf, Africa, Asia, Oceania, the Americas, and Europe.

While the media has trained its lens on the crises unfolding inside the country, for this piece, MainGate turns its attention to that parallel Lebanon to get a sense of the hopes and fears felt abroad.

For Rita Tohme (BS ’10, MS ’13), who left Lebanon in 2013 to pursue a doctoral degree in molecular medicine at Case Reserve Western University School of Medicine, there is cause for optimism. Growing up in Lebanon, she believed sectarianism to be as inevitable or inflexible as genetic inheritance, like one’s height or eye color. “All I ever heard on TV were political figures calling for the divide of the country, and my whole life I’ve lived through that thinking it was inherent in people’s minds, even mine,” she says. The October 2019 uprising made it clear to her that she was not alone in her thinking. “I always wanted to live outside sectarianism, where merit supersedes religion, and I thought
I was the only person having these thoughts.”

Since then, she’s been as engaged with her homeland as she can be while pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. She’s liaised with AUB professors involved in activism on the ground, joining chemistry professor Najat Saliba on two initiatives, the Environment Academy and Khaddit Beirut. Through the former, she has been speaking to Lebanese living in the country who are working to find innovative ways to address the country’s environmental challenges. “We’re soliciting proposals from the Lebanese public about solutions to environmental issues and connecting with diaspora experts,” she explains. While at Khaddit Beirut, she’s been involved in surveying those affected by the blast to get a sense of their healthcare needs.

The spark of activism, lit for Tohme when she entered her doctoral program and joined the graduate student council, has helped her remain optimistic about Lebanon’s future. “I would love the take-home message to be that the real revolution starts from within, with education. That’s what I truly believe, that Lebanese have the power to make change.”

For Dina Abou Salem (BA ’00, MA ’04), a journalist and communications professional based in Los Angeles, there’s not much room for optimism at the moment. “While I still hope for a better Lebanon, I am losing [that hope] along the way as Lebanon’s political and sectarian divides and economic crises worsen,” she writes in an email to MainGate.

Abou Salem used to make annual trips to Lebanon with her daughter. Those visits ceased when the uprising began. “After the Port explosion though, I did travel to Beirut [without her daughter] for two weeks to help folks with the clean-up and I did bring cash dollars to a couple of families from their relatives in Los Angeles.”

Still, she remains heartened by the collective diaspora response in Los Angeles and elsewhere. “The diaspora community has not given up on the country,” she wrote. In downtown Los Angeles there have been vigils, and two days after the blast on August 6th, the colors of the Lebanese flag lit up the façade of CITY HALL.

Akram Miknas (Sophomore Diploma ’65) last visited Lebanon in October 2020, on the day of the Solidarity revolution. Based in Bahrain, he considers the state of the country from the standpoint of an investor. He owns 30 McDonald’s franchises in Lebanon and a marketing agency, Fortune Promoseven, that serves multinational clients like General Motors, Nestle, and Emirates Airlines. His businesses employ a combined four thousand Lebanese. “Because of the dollar becoming a rare commodity, you cannot even maintain McDonald’s in the proper way,” he says. “You cannot pay your suppliers in dollars and they won’t take Lebanese.”

The franchises, which rely on the global supply chain of McDonald’s for everything from fish to french fries, have been forced to operate on credit for the time being. Several were also damaged in the explosion.

Miknas counts himself lucky compared to the many Lebanese in the country facing far greater hardships and even those among his friends in the diaspora who’ve invested the bulk of their savings in the country and subsequently lost everything. “The people I know who sold their businesses outside [the country] and put their money in Lebanon are today really in bad shape.”

Yet he concludes with a note of optimism. “I believe in my country, the background, the people,” he says. Though he doesn’t plan to continue investing in the country until it stabilizes politically. “A lot of us are still carefully optimistic, but not more than that.”

Elissar Antonios (BS ’87), the chief executive officer at Citibank UAE, sees the country’s ongoing migration since the civil war as having changed its basic character. “The DNA of the country has changed, and I personally worry how much more it’s going to have changed after this latest crisis in terms of mentality, exposure to diverse people, and opinions.”

However, she notes that her personal relationship with the country remains unchanged. “I don’t think it will ever change. I continue to dream of the Lebanon we grew up on. A country of diversity, a country of inclusiveness,” she says.

While she grew up in the UAE, she insisted that her children attend AUB. “We wanted to ensure that anchoring of belongingness to the country, which doesn’t come unless you live there. It’s not just the country of their grandparents.”

She and her husband intend to retire in Lebanon. “We want to go back and live there, not just be buried there. People often live their whole lives abroad then come back to be buried in their villages.”

She says that the explosion pulled the diaspora together but acknowledges a general sense of cynicism about the country’s prospects. Despite that, Antonios affirms her optimism: “If the diaspora’s not optimistic, then what?”

Because of the
dollar becoming a
rare commodity, you cannot even maintain
McDonald’s in the proper way.