Out of a torn country, to peace:24 years of the Family Kahwaji in Vancouver ,BC

Out of a torn country, to peace

In the small, Lebanese restaurant, Nick Kahwaji is sitting with an expectant air. He is about to tell me the story of his journey to Canada from Lebanon.

Kahwaji has been in Canada, and Vancouver, 12 years. Forty-four years old, he is a practising dentist who has a wife and four kids, a house, and, apparently a good life. He is a Canadian citizen. He has also just been appointed to the post of Deputy Secretary General of the World Lebanese Cultural Union. Before that, he served as Vice-President and as President of the Lebanese Canadian Society of BC, which has been serving the Lebanese community in BC for 36 years.

However, etched into Kahwaji’s thoughts and his expression is another story. It begins in 1975 in Lebanon when the then 18-year-old was performing military service in the Lebanese army.

War broke out that year, and the army was divided into two sections, Christian and Muslim. Kahwaji’s family was Christian. “I had to follow my brother to Belgium. He was doing medicine. My father sent me to Cyprus by boat. From Cyprus I went to France [after getting a visa]. From France, I managed to go to Belgium. This is a funny story. Belgium wouldn’t give me a student visa, so I had to borrow my brother’s passport to cross the border to register myself [as a medical student in Belgium].”

Kahwaji moved back to France (having no status in Belgium), where he received a tourist visa as well as sponsorship to return to Belgium. The sponsorship enabled him to procure a “séjour”, or resident visa. Five years later he completed his dental degree. Following two more years of training, he returned to Lebanon, where he immediately set up a practice in Abra, his southern Lebanese hometown.

For a year and a half, everything went well, but then war started again. Giving up his home and all his belongings, Kahwaji escaped to the security zone beside the Israeli border with only his diploma, his passport, and a few photo albums.

After staying in the security zone about three months, Kahwaji and his parents boarded a boat that took them directly north to Beirut. With the help of family members, he opened a dental office in 1986. In 1987, his parents immigrated to Vancouver, sponsored by Kahwaji’s older brother, who had already settled there. But younger brother Nick didn’t want to leave.

“I wanted to go back to our hometown,” he says. “I believed I could go back and rebuild my life. I didn’t want to lose hope [and that I would] have to find another country. I wanted to believe there was hope for the future of the country, that I could go back and things would be better.”

So he persevered. In November 1987 he got married, and his office was running smoothly.

Less than two years later, everything changed again. In 1989, war broke out between Syria and the Lebanese army. “Every night there was shelling,” recalls Kahwaji. “We would sleep in the corridors; there was no electricity and not enough water.”

With his wife pregnant, and his parents entreating him to come to Canada, Kahwaji went to Cyprus to obtain tourist visas for his wife and himself. In September, with their passports and money in a plastic bag, they left Beirut. Kahwaji hired a dentist to look after his practice for four months. They weren’t leaving the country; they took just enough clothes for a holiday.

The boat that took them out of the harbour under cover of darkness moved very slowly to begin with, then picked up speed and made off like a bullet. After about ten minutes, one of the other passengers announced that the bombs wouldn’t reach them. They came to Cyprus, and boarded a plane to Vancouver.  

The first thing they did upon landing was to find an obstetrician, which wasn’t easy. With no medical history available for Kahwaji’s wife and no G.P. referral, local doctors were reluctant to help them. Kahwaji is still grateful to the doctor who finally agreed. “I still have a big respect for this doctor,” he says.

In Lebanon, a new war was breaking out between the Christian militia Lebanese forces (LF), and the official Lebanese army, and in 1991, Syria invaded. “I knew I could be killed, my wife could be killed, my family could be killed,” says Kahwaji. “My parents and my wife convinced me that it was stupid to go back, so I had to stay.” As a result, he applied for refugee status. In doing so, Kahwaji became another member of the “Lebanese diaspora,” the dispersal of Lebanese people from their country across the globe.

Kahwaji says, “I don’t think I could live without Canada. I don’t think I could leave and never come back. It’s my country too [now]. It’s growing every day on me.” He advocates “Lebanese affection, but on Canadian standards.”

When asked if he will ever move back to Lebanon, he adds, “I don’t know. I’m divided between two countries. In Canada, I’m one person extra. But in Lebanon I could make a difference. Lebanese society in general needs help socially and culturally – especially in the South.”

Kahwaji says there are four to five thousand Lebanese in BC, about 90% of whom reside in the Lower Mainland. The community is “well-assimilated” into society, consisting of people from all walks of life: doctors, lawyers, teachers, and business people.

A plaque in Queen Elizabeth Park is dedicated to the Lebanese who have made Canada their home. Set in stone underneath a Lebanese cedar tree, it was unveiled in 1995 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the LCS of BC. Kahwaji says people come from all over to take their picture beside this plaque. For them, it is a poignant souvenir, a memory of a small country far flung into a vast world.

For more information on Lebanese culture and events, you may call the Lebanese Society of BC at ( 778 835 2687 )

Paul Gowan ( the source:forum for diversity)
September 2001

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