Things That Only Kids of Lebanese Immigrants Understand

One of my Colombian friends and I have been known to have long arguments over whether Shakira is Lebanese or Colombian. Of course, she is both — but although she was born and raised in Barranquilla, Colombia and has full albums in Spanish, her signature belly dancing moves are distinctly Lebanese and inspired by the Arabic drum. After all, it's in her blood — her father was born to Lebanese immigrants in New York City.


Photo Credit: AP Images

Among other notable Lebanese people are actresses Salma Hayek and Marlo Thomas. Rima Fakih was the winner of Miss USA in 2010, and the first Arab-American to win the title. Renowned journalists Octavia Nasser, formerly of CNN, and the late Anthony Shadid, author and correspondent for the New York Times are also of Lebanese descent, with Nasser even getting her start in Lebanon. And of course, two of my favorite political and media figures, Helen Thomas and Ralph Nader, are both of Lebanese descent.


Helen Thomas (Photo Credit: AP Images)

But any Lebanese worth their salt will tell you that there are far more.

A recent Freakonomics episode claimed that the Lebanese are some of the most successful immigrants. Although the episode was mainly referencing financial success, it also indicated that there were several Lebanese-descended celebrities of note.


Lebanese-American journalist and former New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid. (Photo Credit: AP Images)

The first theory on Lebanese immigrant success stories is that they stick together.

I know this well from my own experience as a descendant of Lebanese immigrants. My family took the complicated route from Beirut to Turkey to Mexico to Texas — a seemingly unlikely, and slightly frightening-seeming ending location for Lebanese immigrants. Still, despite settling deep in the heart of redneck country in Eastern Texas, my family managed to find an Arabic grocery store down the street, an Assyrian Orthodox Church, and a large Lebanese community with whom to share gigantic meals.

In my own life, simply dropping that I’m Lebanese has resulted in new friends, sudden discounts, and general life advice in unexpected places.

It makes sense that Lebanese stick together—after all, there are almost four times as many of us outside of the country as inside!


Lebanese-American former presidential candidate and political activist Ralph Nader. (Photo Credit: AP Images)

Next, Lebanese are accustomed to turmoil and instability — and are used to navigating through chaos or starting from scratch. The first major wave of immigration came at the turn of the 20th century when, in addition to many Christians being persecuted by the Ottoman Empire, the silk industry collapsed, forcing many Lebanese into poverty. 

The next major wave came during the Lebanese Civil War, when 40% of the country left and settled in many different parts of the world including Europe, Australia, South America, and the United States and Canada.

A Lebanese economist interviewed on the show hypothesized that the chaos to which Lebanese immigrants are accustomed — whether it is economic collapse or war and violence — translates into easy adaptability and a zeal for starting anew. When it comes to finding clients for a new business or finding work, Lebanese immigrants often looked to their community members around them and resulted in success.

Lastly, the show critiqued the social concept of an “immigrant.” While many times we imagine immigrants as the most desperate refugees of the world’s traumas, in reality immigrants are a self-selecting population. They uproot themselves by choice in search of opportunities beyond the limits of their current horizons and are prepared for and in many ways choose adventure and adversity. I am sure everyone can find strains of this in their own immigrant families, but in mine in particular there is a love and respect for entrepreneurialism and creativity that takes risks, finds stability relative, and most of all is successful enough that no matter what the endeavor, someone will eventually say, “You know who started it? Well they’re Lebanese.”

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Anna Lekas Miller

Anna Lekas Miller is a Lebanese-American Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on the Middle East, National Security and Arab America. She has lived in and written from the West Bank.

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