Lebanese Emigration Research Center – Guita Hourani

07Sep08

LDN’s Consultant & Associate Director of the Lebanese Emigration Research Center (LERC)
Hourani to NOW Lebanon: What does Lebanon’s high emigration rate mean for the country?

Guita G. Hourani is the associate director of the Lebanese Emigration Research Center at Notre Dame University in Zouk and a member of the university’s Research Board. She has a Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning and another in History, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the Université de Poitiers in France. She has been a consultant for various organizations in Washington, DC and has lectured at universities and conferences around the world. She has also published a number of books and reports, most recently including The Impact of the Summer 2006 War on Migration in Lebanon: Emigration, Re-Migration, Evacuation, and Returning. Hourani sat down with NOW Lebanon’s Hayeon Lee to talk about her center and what Lebanon’s high emigration rate means for the future of the country.

NOW Lebanon: Could you tell us about the absentee voting project at the Lebanese Emigration Research Center (LERC) as of late?

Guita Hourani: We currently have three major projects. One is on absentee voting, or out-of-country voting project. It’s a book that we wanted to publish three years ago, but due to the situation in Lebanon, we postponed it, and now it’s becoming again an issue with the [parliamentary] election of 2009… In Lebanon, the constitution actually does not specify where you should be in order to vote. The Boutros Commission developed that section to recommend that the Lebanese who live abroad should be able to actually vote in absentia…[The report] is going to come out within the coming few months…

The second project is… looking at what is Lebanon for the Maronites, and this is the first time we are looking at diaspora and religion in the Christian community…This is a very new field… And moving to the second part, we’re preparing a questionnaire to send it to Maronites around the world to look at their identity and where Lebanon fits. The title of the project is: The Promised Land: Reflections on the Maronite Diaspora.

The third project is about citizenship and naturalization in Lebanon, looking basically at naturalization decrees that took place between 1943 and 2007, and looking at the geopolitical aspect of these decisions as well as who was naturalized [in Lebanon] and why… Lebanon has never banned dual citizenship…

NOW: Could you map out where and in what numbers Lebanese are spread around the globe? Is it true that there are many more Lebanese abroad than in Lebanon?

Hourani: That is a complete myth… We know from estimation that there are about 1.2 million Lebanese citizens who left between 1975 and 2007… They’re everywhere, including Antarctica now… New migration is now to Eastern Europe and the newest one is to Asia…China. Now majority of migration is definitely to… Australia, Canada and the United States. We have a large community in Mexico, and older communities in Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil. The ones that keep on receiving people continuously from the 1800s are Canada, Australia and the US… In Europe, we have a huge community… We have a nice community in England, of course France is the biggest community [in Europe]. Now the community in Switzerland is growing… And certainly, Nigeria is big.

NOW: Do most Lebanese citizens who emigrate tend to pass on their citizenship to their children born from abroad? Do they come back to Lebanon with their families?

Hourani: Many people, particularly Christians, have not registered their kids [even if they return to Lebanon]… Many of the Christians as well thought, “Why do I need to get a Lebanese passport for my son or daughter if they can come and go to Lebanon using a foreign passport?” Because the Lebanese passport during the [civil] war was not something to be proud of because you were always picked up from the line… Some were also disenchanted of the situation in Lebanon… after 1990, during the Syrian occupation mainly… and they didn’t register their children. So now we have practically no idea how many of the 1.2 million people [who emigrated between 1975 and 2007] actually came back, how many of them have children, and whether these children are registered or not… But those who didn’t register their children are Christians. On the other hand, other communities are more adamant…The Armenians for example, are not registering their kids at all…Actually, the Armenian community is completely dilapidating in Lebanon, and they’re not returning [after emigration], and they’re not registering their children even now…You have migration from all the communities…

[The diaspora is mostly Christian, but only if we consider] the descendants of migrants as well, but the Shia are migrating now. But the big difference is that [in general], the Shia are migrating to countries where they can return from, mainly the Gulf and Africa, and the Christians are actually going to countries where they can gain citizenship, and it’s mostly a permanent migration…

NOW: In Los Angeles, there is a Druze community of more than 1,000 that congregates every year. Is there usually a sectarian character about other Lebanese emigrant communities abroad as well?

Hourani: …It depends. If you are in Lebanon, you don’t ask anyone if they are Lebanese or not. First you ask, are you Christian or Muslim? … [But] when you are abroad, they ask you, “Are you Lebanese?” They don’t ask you whether you’re Christian or Muslim. The second question is [your sect]… And then they move even deeper than that. “Which village are you from?” There are layers of connecting with people. Yes, there are sectarian congregations, they congregate in one area. They go to this particular church, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only network. It’s very fluid.

What happened in 2005 is very interesting… In the United States…the Lebanese lobby, for example, was mostly Christian… What has happened since 2005 is that other people are actually joining. So you see that with the shift among the Sunnis following the assassination of Hariri, especially against Syria… [Lebanese politics] shows in the diaspora, in the lobbying… [Christian Lebanese] have been joined in lobbying their governments by Druze, by Sunnis, by Shia…

NOW: How politicized is the Lebanese diaspora?

Hourani: You will be surprised: Some of the fourth and fifth generation Lebanese abroad are very active in the communities, and are very active in lobbying for Lebanon. We’ve seen that in 2006 through websites that were established just for Lebanon… The Lebanese are connected with Lebanon. You have satellite TV… You have the Lebanese and Arab satellite TVs which didn’t exist 10 years ago. So now, you wake up in whatever country, you turn on your TV, and you are in Lebanon. You know everything about what you need to know, and sometimes, you know it before we know it. Then there is networking through travel, marriage, rituals. They get married in Lebanon, they bury their dead in Lebanon, they have baptism parties in Lebanon, they have debutante parties in Lebanon… So [emigrants] don’t feel disconnected anymore…

NOW: Emigration is often times seen as symptomatic of the dysfunctional state of Lebanese affairs, and that it causes suffering among families and major brain drain. What are your views on this? To what extent is emigration a choice and to what extent is it forced?

Hourani: When we call it “brain drain,” that means that the negative impact is evident…When you have brain drain, you have losses on more than one level. First of all, you’re losing your youth, and when you’re losing your youth, you lose your competitiveness… innovative ideas, and demography… Then you’re left with an old community not able to work, and who’s going to pay for them? … In terms of the money they produce, it’s not that everyone’s getting $3,000 a month. [The emigrants] are sending 10% of that to Lebanon.

But what are the emigrants producing in those countries? What are they putting in the economy? This is what we’re losing as well. We’re losing their productivity… People in Lebanon can afford [to have a good life], if the situation is better and if there is security, because in my opinion, that’s the main reason for people to leave: insecurity… physical, psychological, political insecurity of the country. That’s the main reason…

I’ve written an article for the Minister of Foreign Affairs…about brain drain. I talk about “revolving door.” … I’m suggesting that the Lebanese can actually learn a lot from other countries, they can gain experience, and they can also improve their skills… But the most important [thing] is to channel [emigrants] in a way that if there is security in Lebanon, they will come back… They want the family environment, and also, the weather… And also, being in a huge country such as the States is a shock…

So I believe that… [if Lebanon is secure] it will produce migrants that are not permanent most of the time… They go to experience outside, study outside, etc., come back, revolving door…

But I think [permanent emigration] is the demise of Lebanon.

NOW: But what might be the economic, social and cultural benefits of emigration? What is the role of remittances in the Lebanese economy?

Hourani: The benefits are plenty. Lebanon is the first in the world in terms of remittances per capita [According to Nassib Ghobril, head of Economic Research at Byblos Bank, in 2006, 25% of GDP was from remittances, based on a total of $5.7 billion sent to Lebanon from abroad]… The positive impact is that they bring in financial capital, human capital and social capital. The social capital is the network, the values etc.; the human capital is the know-how, the skills they bring; and the financial capital is the money they bring. And the Lebanese have been doing that. Lebanon, between 1914 and 1960, made a quantum leap because of the migrants, because Lebanon was completely devastated during the siege of the Ottomans during World War I… The safety net for Lebanon now is its emigrants.

NOW: You have written extensively on the impact of the 2006 July War on emigration.  Could you give us a glimpse of your findings?

Hourani: The report was published by CARIM [Euro-Mediterranean Consortium for Applied Research on International Migration]…We interviewed around 600 people, we accepted 444 completed. So of the 444, 64% said they want to leave… Who have left? We have no idea…We asked actually if they had made that step, but at the time, most of the embassies were actually not accepting applications for visas. And since [the respondents] were anonymous, we couldn’t follow up…I’m hoping that one day…what I want to do is a timeline, and I want to put on it, events [political events and wars, etc.], and [compare the numbers of arrivals and departures before and after each event] to see if that event had any impact on emigration. This would be valuable.

NOW: What has been the impact of emigration on gender roles and relations currently?

Hourani: In terms of gender roles, meaning whether women have actually been taking the place of men in the country, certainly [there has been a change]… But now, women are also leaving. So there is a feminization of migration in Lebanon. Women are also going to the Gulf, to the US, wherever they could find a job and good money…

But one of the least-studied issues on migration is the role of mothers left behind, and how they deal with raising the family, with their own emotions and with their own growing up. My perception is that many of them do suffer from emotional [stress]… When the husband is away for a long period of time, there is also the need of companionship, the psychological need … Although society may not look at the women as equals, they have been for centuries — for as long as migration from the 1800s — carrying the job of raising the family alone. Not to say that the husband… and the children are not suffering…

NOW: Could you tell us about the LERC’s new internship program?

Hourani: We’ve been doing this internship quietly but for a while, but last year, I made a call, and it was very successful. We got two people from abroad… and we got three from Lebanon… They work on projects, but what I’ve done in the center is that I ask of them to be multi-disciplinary, so they have to design projects, implement research, write reports, be rapporteurs, go to meetings, represent the center, write press releases. So their experience is, I would say, a well-rounded experience for young people…[The internship is] between six months to a year, or two years if the person doesn’t find a job, and we have small project for which we pay them… Normally what we’ve been experiencing… is that those who actually leave us leave for better jobs.

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