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Lebanese diaspora go back to their roots

The 'Back to Roots' programme brings back Lebanese Americans who feel a connection to Lebanon, despite growing up beyond its borders
Back to Roots participants disembark to hike through Lebanon's iconic cedars at the Chouf biosphere reserve (MEE/Anna Lekas Miller)
“Is there za’atar b’sneyneh?
Marie-Anne Hobeika smiles, asking in blended English and Arabic if there is any za’atar, a popular Levantine spiced thyme, in her teeth. 
Bas ishway - only a little bit,” replies one of her friends.
Marie-Anne is one of 14 participants in Back to Roots - an annual trip to Lebanon intended for Lebanese-Americans and Lebanese-Canadians, who, like Marie-Anne feel a deep connection to Lebanon, despite growing up beyond its borders.
Organised by the Lebanese Information Centre, the programme is intended to foster a connection to Lebanon for first- and second-generation members of the diaspora.
Over the course of two weeks, the group mixes business and pleasure, meeting with local NGOs, and political and religious leaders while enjoying Lebanon’s many attractions - such as the Mediterranean beaches and Beirut’s nightlife.
Today’s activity is a trip to Beiteddine, a 19th-century palace in the Chouf region, and then a hike through the cedar reserves, an activity intended to explore environmental preservation in Lebanon and a nod to the cedar tree, the national symbol of the country.
“I loved it so much, I got depressed when I went home,” Hobeika enthusiastically told Middle East Eye about her first visit to Lebanon. “I knew I had to come back.”
It is a Back to Roots tradition to plant a cedar tree, the national symbol of Lebanon, in the Chouf Biosphere Reserve (MEE/Anna Lekas Miller)
The Back to Roots participants are as diverse as the diaspora - which due to multiple periods of mass immigration, and most recently the civil war is believed to number more than four times the population of Lebanon itself.
In addition to representing several different religious sects, from different branches of Christianity to Islam and the Druze, participants' relationships to Lebanon vary as well. Some speak Arabic fluently, some don’t speak a word. Some grew up with two Lebanese parents, regularly visiting Lebanon, others - many of whom have parents that left during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war - grew up with parents who are apprehensive about going back, and have only been once or twice. Some have never visited at all.
“My dad always told me he would take me, and never did,” said Alex Sahyouni, who is 29 and has never been to Lebanon before. “So I decided it was time to come.”

Identity struggles

Those who have visited, and even visited often, have only seen their family’s version of Lebanon - which can be a narrow perception in a country known for its diversity.
“I feel like I’m seeing a completely different side of Lebanon,” Ibrahim Jamie Arabi, a recent graduate of the University of Western Ontario told MEE.
“When I came with my family, I only went to Saida and south of Saida," Arabi added, commenting on his impressions of Lebanon being centred around his family’s Sunni Muslim identity. “I had never seen the Christian sites - many of which are so famous - until this trip.”
Still, many aspects of the culture are shared. On the bus, someone blasts famous Lebanese songs by Nancy Ajram and Fairouz from iPhone speakers, others clap along, some get up and dance in the traditional baladi style. Others that grew up speaking Arabic teach new words and phrases to those who did not. 
Weyn-il hamaam,” one girl says, carefully enunciating each syllable as another teaches her how to say, “Where is the bathroom.”
While all of the participants seem very excited about being in Lebanon, and speak enthusiastically about the programme, Assistant Programme Director Maya Gebeily says coming to Lebanon can bring up difficult questions. "What happens when, after feeling out of place in the United States for being Lebanese all of your life, you finally come to Lebanon only to be told that you are American?" she asks. 
“Some people feel as out of place here as they do in the US, and are trying to figure out where they belong,” Gebeily, a Back to Roots alumnus herself, told MEE. 
For this reason, Gebeily has made a point of scheduling a few meetings with other members of the diaspora who chose to come back and start projects in Lebanon, such as Zeina Saab, founder of the Nawaya Network, an NGO that works with underprivileged Lebanese youth, and Habib Battah, a Lebanese-American investigative journalist who now runs the blog Beirut Report investigating architectural heritage sites that are in danger.
“We’re trying to send the message that being mixed is an identity,” Gebeily continues. “Not just an identity, but an asset.”
On the way to the cedars, conversation about what it is like to be Lebanese in the United States does not stop.
“My high school is so white that I got voted most likely to be mistaken for Kim Kardashian,” laughs Fabienne al-Cid, a second year university student at Georgetown University.
Still, al-Cid experiences her own version of the identity dissonance that Gebeily speaks about.
“When I go to the dukken (shop) the shopkeepers know I’m American - but tell me I have a good Arabic accent,” Cid told MEE at a traditional lunch including a spread of Lebanese mezze appetizers, and meshawe or grilled meats. “It’s like a little nod that they know who I am.”


Back to Roots Assistant Programme Director Maya Gebeily and participant Lizzy Nammeh pose at Beiteddine, a famous castle in the Chouf region of Lebanon (MEE/Anna Lekas Miller)
New lessons from the old country

Despite bringing many Lebanese traditions and values to their communities in the United States and Canada, many families - particularly first generation - associate Lebanon with war time and, in addition to being hesitant about visiting, do not understand why their offspring might want to spend extended time, or even set up a life, in Lebanon.
“Many of their parents left during the civil war - so their memory is much more real,” Gebeily continues, commenting on hesitancy to travel to Lebanon. 
“There is a perception of no economic opportunity here that comes from immigrant parents that fled Lebanon and found opportunities in the West,” she continues. “They look at Lebanon as a place that has no stability or opportunity.”
This resonates personally with Gebeily, a first-generation Lebanese-American woman who made the decision two years ago to move back to Lebanon and work as a journalist - a career and life choice that took some explaining to both family in the United States and family in Lebanon.
Now every year - through both Gebeily’s work as a reporter and her experiences living in Lebanon - she reflects on stories she wrote and experiences she had, and channels her knowledge into creating a more diverse programme for Back to Roots.
Whereas the inaugural programme, which she participated in, was criticised for being heavily Maronite and politically slanted towards the March 14 movement led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, she has made a personal effort to recruit a more diverse group of participants and meet with a plethora of political and religious leaders and NGOs. She says this has helped participants to go back to the United States armed with new knowledge about the scope of conversations happening, and potential opportunities that exist in Lebanon.
“We have ironic situations where kids go back and tell their parents about Lebanon how it is now, and their parents learn something new about their own country,” Gebeily laughs.
Now in the cedar reserve, participants stare up at the magnificent trees in the forest, many of which are literally thousands of years old. In a Back to Roots tradition, they plant a plaque next to a sprouting cedar tree, which everyone universally decided to name Shankleesh, after a smelly Lebanese cheese.
Standing in the iconic cedar reserve, Alex Sahyouni smiles.
“I’m coming back, and I’m bringing my dad with me.”

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