Daughters of the Lebanese diaspora return despite the crisis

Daughters of the Lebanese diaspora return despite the crisis

Madelynn Azar in Kousba, her village, in 1973. (Credit: George Azar)

BEIRUT — Since the start of Lebanon’s economic crisis, much has been written about the latest exodus of its citizens, looking for a better life elsewhere, adding to the already massive Lebanese diaspora.

High hopes have been pinned on that diaspora — of whom 225,624 are registered to vote abroad on May 15 — in the upcoming elections.

Less noticed are the Lebanese formerly living abroad who have chosen to move back to Lebanon during what is arguably its most tumultuous time since the Civil War. Unlike those migrating out of the country, their numbers have not been quantified in studies.

Some were forced into this reverse diaspora by losing their jobs abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic. Others were driven by a sense of obligation to be back in the home country in its time of crisis, or a need to reconnect with their roots.

Myrna, a 41-year old who works in marketing and who asked not to be identified by her full name for privacy reasons, had lived in Dubai for 15 years when the pandemic led her company to place its employees on unpaid leave.

“At the time, I thought it would be a matter of months before things got back to normal,” she said. But “it dragged on for a really long time, and being without any salary for more than four or five months, it became impossible to support myself in Dubai, where life is really expensive.”

Although Myrna found an opportunity to work remotely for another company, her salary wasn’t enough to stay in Dubai, so she moved back to Lebanon, to be able to save some money.

“I definitely didn’t want to move back, as the country is in a state of collapse. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would want to move back.”

While Myrna cherishes her time with her parents — over the years, being far from them had made her wonder whether it was time to move back home — being back made affirmed once again that Lebanon is not the right place for her.

“After having been away for such a long time — I don’t want to say it’s a cultural shock as I’m Lebanese and have lived here all my life, [but] it was difficult to come back and be confronted with everything you don’t see when you’re abroad, the mere lack of having your basic needs met,” she said. Being back in her parents’ house, she also missed her independent life in Dubai.

She does cherish little things, like the change of seasons and the freedom of walking in nature on the narrow roads of her da3ya (village), where she and her friends used to steal fruit from neighboring orchards as children. She doesn’t completely rule out ever moving back home permanently.

“But not before reforms are truly implemented, corruption is dealt with and at least our basic needs are being met,” she said. “You can’t invest in anything here, it will be a waste of your money. I don’t think there’s any benefit to anyone being here. Except for those who work with politicians probably or politicians themselves or their kids because they robbed the country blind.”

In the meantime, Myrna is still applying for jobs in Dubai every day but said she won’t go back unless she finds one with a salary that will allow her to “sustain and support my parents.”

As for the upcoming elections, she won’t be voting in them; last year, she booked a trip to see her favorite band in Paris, and it happened that the May 15 election date falls on that weekend. “Otherwise, I would have voted,” she said.

For Lebanese who grew up in the diaspora, the reasons to come back are different. While it’s not new for second generation Lebanese immigrants to move back to Lebanon, the circumstances over the past two years have not been encouraging. There are some who decided to come back despite the abysmal state the country finds itself in.

Madelynn Azar is one of them. Born in Philadelphia to Lebanese parents from the village of Kousba, in the Koura district of north Lebanon, Madelynn visited her village in the summer when she was 17.

After that, university, medical studies, raising a family and her career kept her busy. But she never forgot her Lebanese roots, which she also instilled in her two children.

Azar didn’t go back to Lebanon until 2009, when she visited with her daughter.

“I remember walking around Beirut when I suddenly stopped in the middle of the street, looked over at my daughter and said: ‘This feels like home.’”

While that feeling never left her, it took more than ten years for her to come back to Lebanon. What was supposed to be a mere visit to her brother was suddenly and, in some ways, serendipitously, turned into a longer stay due to the outbreak of the pandemic, which prevented her from flying back to New York, where she was the medical director of employee health, safety and wellness at the Mount Sinai Health System, overseeing the health and wellbeing of their 36,000 staff members at seven hospital locations. Her prolonged stay in Lebanon had yet again struck her with such a visceral sense of belonging that she decided to change her whole life and start a new chapter in the country her family once left for the United States.

However, while she was making arrangements for her move overseas, the Beirut port blast happened.

“Not only was the place I had stayed in destroyed, it devastated me,” she said. “I mourned with the country.”

Azar couldn’t let go of Lebanon and finally, more than a decade after she felt like she had finally arrived home, she actually made Lebanon her permanent home in November of last year.

She found that she was always accepted as Lebanese even though she doesn’t speak the language, in contrast to the US, where some didn’t regard her as fully American even though she grew up there. Azar said it’s her people’s generous spirit that makes her feel at home in Lebanon.

“Everywhere I go I’m met with curiosity and warmth,” she said. “I’ll be sitting somewhere alone and by the end of the night I’ll have made a new friend, if not more.”

One anecdote in particular exemplifies the sense of community she’s so enamored with. While having one of her strolls in Hamra in an attempt to get to know the city she now calls home, she suddenly tripped and fell.

In Manhattan, passersby had once ignored her being mugged. But here, several people rushed to her side to help her. Downplaying her injury, and confident she’d be able to deal with it at home, Azar insisted she was fine. One person, who turned out to be an off-duty doctor, noted she had a split upper lip, an injury that, in her complete disorientation, she hadn’t realized. The young Lebanese doctor brought her to a hospital, checked her in and made sure that she was properly taken care of.

Azar did not come back to Lebanon just to take strolls, meet people and finally learn her parents’ mother tongue. As an expert in occupational medicine, she is determined to play her part in developing what she describes as still a barely existing field in Lebanon.

From giving workshops to doctors and medical staff to creating a registration system with the Ministry of Health, to determining whether people’s symptoms are related to job-specific conditions such as dealing with hazardous chemicals, a once distant daughter of Lebanon has now come back to help her ailing mother.

However, she won’t be able to take part in the upcoming polls either. She just got her Lebanese ID card, but not in time to be placed on the voter rolls in Koura, where her family is from.

lisa luxx is a Syrian-British writer, performer, essayist and activist who grew up in the United Kingdom after she was adopted and raised by a Lebanese father. (Credit: Maria Klenner)

For others, like lisa luxx (lowercase intentional), the return to the homeland is “a type of resistance.”

luxx is a Syrian-British writer, performer, essayist and activist who grew up in the United Kingdom after she was adopted and raised by a Lebanese father — a fact that left her with a lasting relationship to Lebanon even though she does not have the nationality. While she initially moved to Lebanon in 2017 to return to her heritage, which she describes as “a bit of Iraqi, lots of Syrian, a chunk of British, a dash of Palestinian, bit of this, bit of that,” it has now become an intrinsic part of her work, her activism and even her master’s thesis.

“I came back to get to know parts of myself that had been omitted through the cultural annihilation that occurs when you're a second generation immigrant in the diaspora and you have one foot in the global south.”

When the Beirut blast happened, she was living abroad and felt that that diasporic essence came with a strong sense of responsibility.

“I like to use the word responsibility because the word ‘privilege’ has become so passive. It’s a concept that is inherently hierarchical itself and has a passive sense of power which feels very useless,” luxx said. “It’s about how we each use our resources to work with people as part of the grassroots movements inside and outside of Lebanon, how we each activate our responsibility to a country that means a lot to us.”

She worked with the diaspora to support LGBT+ communities and migrant domestic workers through collecting donations of medicine and money while working with landlords and hospitals for health concerns and urgent shelter needs.

Leaving after the blast was not an option, luxx said. “There is no such thing as a post-blast period. That diminishes how big the blast was and how much work was and still is to be done as a community in looking after each other in terms of mental health care as well as material resources such as medicine, when it comes to all the different communities who are marginalized.”

After the blast, luxx, who would usually travel back and forth to Lebanon, decided to make Lebanon a more permanent home. She only left to finish her master’s but fully intends to come back to Lebanon ‘indeterminately’ as soon as she finishes her classes next month.

Since then, all of her family and most of her friends have now left Beirut, which she reluctantly admits feels like a ghost town in some ways, especially since last summer, which was an endless string of goodbye parties.

“I’ve been asking myself this question, is a country made of land and borders or is it made of blood and people?” she said. “And it’s an impossible question to answer. It depends on the moment, on the context. If we look at the material politics of that question then it’s lands and borders but if we talk about the soul and resistance then blood and heritage comes into play.”

While there are many Lebanese, inside the country and in the diaspora, who have written Lebanon off as a lost cause, and luxx admits it did feel that way “a little bit” even to her last summer, she prefers to believe in the capacity of the new generations.

The predictions that it will take 10-18 years for Lebanon to recover from the current economic meltdown remind her of her father saying that he doesn’t want to come back because it’s not his Lebanon anymore.

“And now I see my friends who grew up solely in Lebanon during a period after my father had left, and they too say that it's not going to be their Lebanon anymore,” she said. “But to me, I feel like it’s such a perpetually moving and shifting place and there is a new generation shaping its future.”

BEIRUT — Since the start of Lebanon’s economic crisis, much has been written about the latest exodus of its citizens, looking for a better life elsewhere, adding to the already massive Lebanese diaspora.High hopes have been pinned on that diaspora — of whom 225,624 are registered to vote abroad on May 15 — in the upcoming elections.Less noticed are the Lebanese formerly living abroad who...