MONTREAL – The current chaos on the docks of Beirut has its roots in another escape in the 1980s, when thousands of Lebanese fled their war-torn country to begin new lives in Canada.
With the return of relative stability to the country in recent years, it has become increasingly common for members of Canada’s Lebanese diaspora to return to their homeland, most commonly for summer vacations, but also to take up residence.
That explains how close to 40,000 Canadian citizens found themselves in the country when fighting erupted. Sami Gedeon, a Montreal travel agent who specializes in travel to Lebanon, said that every year as many as 15,000 people from the city’s Lebanese community — Canada’s biggest — return to the country.
“At this time of year most of the people go there for tourism, as well as to go back and show the kids to their grandparents or meet the family,” said Hatem Hariri, the past president of Montreal’s Lebanese Islamic Centre. Mr. Hariri, who is helping co-ordinate community efforts to receive evacuees, said that before the shelling began, he had been trying to book flights for his family to visit Lebanon.
“We were not able to get tickets on any airline. They were all sold out. It was unbelievable.”
Different sources provide varying numbers on the size of Canada’s Lebanese community. Statistics Canada’s 2001 census identified 143,635 people as being of Lebanese origin. But a briefing book prepared for the government from the 2002 Francophonie Summit put the number at 250,000. Because most speak French, a large proportion have settled in Quebec, primarily in Montreal. In the early 1990s, Lebanon was the second most common source of immigrants to Quebec, after Haiti. Other large communities are in Ottawa, Edmonton and Toronto.
For the duration of Lebanon’s bloody civil war, from 1975-1990, Canada took special administrative steps to allow Lebanese with Canadian relatives into Canada. When Ottawa temporarily closed its full-service Beirut embassy in 1985, the federal government set up an emergency immigration office in Nicosia, Cyprus, to expedite the immigration process.
As in Montreal, most Lebanese immigrants in Toronto arrived with the swell fleeing the Middle Eastern country’s bloody 1975-1990 civil war and have remained close to family members back home. After hostilities tapered off, many made it a tradition to return every summer for vacation. Some even moved back.
The membership rolls at Our Lady of Lebanon, Toronto’s only Maronite Catholic church, illustrate this pattern.
Before 1985, fewer than 100 families worshipped there. After 1985 a wave of Lebanese immigrants flooded in, pushing the church’s membership to between 1,000 and 1,200 families representing between 4,000 and 5,000 parishioners.
Because most of the parishioners immigrated so recently, their ties to Lebanon remain strong, said Father Emmanuel Nakhle, Our Lady of Lebanon’s pastor. “So they go regularly for visits. Maybe not the whole family goes, but every year … one or two members of each family goes back to visit.”
Although he could not provide hard figures, Father Nakhle estimated as many as 75 of the church’s families moved back to Lebanon permanently in the past few years as peace was restored to the war-torn country.
“There is a significant number who left in the last four years trying to settle back there because, you know, they lived there their whole life,” he said. “They feel close to their homeland.”
Fouad Boustani, president of the Canadian-Lebanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, predicted many Lebanese-Canadians who returned to their native country in the past decade will again leave for Canada. He estimated that between 25,000 and 30,000 people have left Canada to resettle in Lebanon in the past decade.
“Many will remain in Lebanon, but I would say between 15,000 and 20,000 could return [to Canada],” he said. “They have lost everything. Their houses are destroyed, their jobs. They have no resources.” He predicted this wave will stay in Canada for the foreseeable future. “The country has been completely destroyed,” he said.
It is not known how many of the 40,000 Canadians in Lebanon will want to get out. Mr. Hariri said the Canadian-Lebanese community is preparing for 16,000 returnees in the coming weeks, of which about one-fifth will not have homes here.
“There are people who might decide, even if I’m not going to find a job back in Canada and I’m a doctor, at least I am safe there,” he said. “We’re going to mobilize the community to get people to make place in their houses for people.”
Mr. Boustani said people who returned to live in Lebanon are just as entitled to Canadian aid as residents. “Don’t forget they are Canadians with dual citizenship. When they lived here, they paid their taxes and contributed to the Canadian economy, and I don’t think Canada should turn its back on these people,” he said.
Elias Bejjani, president of the Phoenician Club of Mississauga and chairman of the Lebanese Canadian Co-ordinating Council, said the Lebanese are no more likely to return permanently to their country of origin after obtaining Canadian citizenship than other immigrants.
“Some came here, they couldn’t do it, they went back home,” he added. “Some came here and left businesses because of the war situation, and when things settled down for them, they went back. But what applies to the Lebanese applies to every other Canadian community.”