Canada was little more than a brief refuge for many escaping the war in Lebanon
CANADIANS OUT OF CONVENIENCE
Canada was little more than a brief refuge for many escaping the war in Lebanon
It took bombs and the distinct possibility of death to convince Zeina Mawassi that she would move her family to Canada for good. On the evening of July 19, Mawassi, her husband, Ali, and their three young boys huddled on the floor of a school in the south Lebanese town of Bint Jubayl. Hezbollah fighters were on one side of the build-
ing, Israeli soldiers on the other. The resulting battle raged, she says, for six hours. “The bombs were falling like rain, and I don’t know how I woke up alive,” she said. “But I decided when I did that we would go to Canada.”
The family convoyed with several others to Beirut, where the Mawassis became part of
the estimated $80-million evacuation effort to Canada—and, Zeina hoped at the time, to a life unburdened by war. In Montreal, she would enrol her kids in school, and her husband would open a store specializing in Lebanese goods. Their Canadian passports were like tickets out of hell, and she was grateful to never have to go back.
It seems strange, then, that Mawassi tells of her ordeal from her house in Aytaroun, a small village about two kilometres from the Israeli border. Three months after they left, the house is alive once again with the noisy play of the Mawassi boys, who are about to begin school nearby. Ali has reopened his restaurant downstairs. The framed picture of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah gazes over the chandeliers and mirrors of their meticulous living room.
Asked of her change of heart, Mawassi only shrugs. If it happens again, Canada will surely organize another evacuation. “If at some point we feel that the children aren’t in peace and safety, we will leave again for Canada. When we had a problem, we went to Canada. When it was safe again we went back to Lebanon.”
Are people like Ali and Zeina Mawassi Canadian only by convenience? It is a question many Canadians are asking after the government’s massive evacuation effort this summer, during which some 15,000 Lebanese
Canadians fled Lebanon. Now, reportedly, some 7,000 have since gone back, despite a tenuous ceasefire with Israel and an economy stunted by war. Part of the reason for the swift return was the brevity of the war itself. In a country used to protracted, decadeslong battles, the month-long conflict was as short as it was brutal. “I guess if the war had taken six months or more, there would be more people who would stay in Canada rather than come back,” says Garbis Dantziguian, president of the Beirut-based Lebanese Canadian Business Association. “If the war had gone for 15 years, as the civil war did, it might have been difficult to come back.”
There are bound to be excesses in a system as accom-
modating as Canada’s, Dantziguian says. But, he notes, thousands of Lebanese-Canadian business owners returned only to check on the state of their businesses, and would likely go back to Canada thereafter—his family included. “We’ve had too much of this turmoil,” says his wife, Annie, who fled to Montreal with her daughter-in-law and the latter’s children this summer before returning. “For 30 years we’ve had it. I’ll sell my house and my business. I want to go back.”
Still others wanted to stay in Canada, but say they were forced to return thanks to, of all things, Quebec’s language laws. Claire Boutros and her family fled to Montreal on Aug. 15, on board one of the last ships chartered by the Canadian government. Boutros, who lives in the Christian village of Zeghrine, about 30 km northeast of Beirut, felt relatively isolated from the war raging mainly in the south. It took a call from the Canadian embassy, however, to make her family realize that the campaign could very well spread north.
“Until then, we never thought of leaving the
country,” Boutros says. “When they called us, we realized it was far more serious than we thought.” Once she made the decision to leave with her husband, Bechara, and two young boys, it would be, as she says, “to live in Canada forever.” Though she isn’t herself Canadian, her husband and children were, and Boutros thought it would be relatively easy to find work as a physiotherapist on the other side of the Atlantic.
Upon landing in Montreal, they thought they would stay put. They rented an apart-
THE BEST PRESENT MY FATHER EVER GAVE ME WAS A CANADIAN PASSPORT. WHEN YOU LIVE IN [LEBANON], YOU NEED A WAY OUT.’
ment in the West Island suburb of Dollard-desOrmeaux, and enrolled their eldest son, Frédéric, 7, in “Canadian football,” complete with shoulder pads and a weird-looking ball, for the coming school year. Then the Boutros family encountered a well-known trap to many who have recently come to Quebec: the province’s requirement that all new arrivals go to French school.
Boutros, who is francophone, but whose children were being taught primarily in English, wanted them to go to English school. But in Quebec, “it was all in French, especially mathematics,” Boutros says. “We tried to teach Frédéric the terms and the numbers, but it didn’t work. He became nervous constantly. He even had nightmares. I started to ask myself why I would put my kid in that situation. We went to Canada for the kids, so we didn’t want to cause them any more anguish.”
In early October, the family that left Lebanon because of war returned because of Quebec’s language laws. The couple hasn’t given up hope on Canada, however. Boutros’s husband is still there looking for work-in Toronto. “At least I could learn English,” she says of the possibility of moving to that city. And she assumes Canada will again be there as a haven should the situation in Lebanon deteriorate. “It’s nice to know that if there’s ever another incident, [we] can get away.”
That they can do so is thanks to a 1977 change in Canada’s citizenship law, which allowed immigrants to hold an unlimited number of foreign passports and still remain
Canadian citizens (and which former Liberal immigration minister Judy Sgro, among others, now suggests is “ripe for exploitation”). It was a boon for thousands of Lebanese, who flocked to Canada during the civil war. In Canada, they identified as Lebanese Canadians—and not as one of the myriad and antagonistic religious sects living and fighting in Lebanon. At the same time, dual citizenship allowed easy return for a people with a well-known (and zealous) attachment to their homeland. Villages like Aytaroun, for example, typically swell to two or three times their size in the summer as members of the Lebanese diaspora return for the holidays.
Today, the largest Lebanese Canadian community is in Montreal. By and large, it is multilingual, well-educated and successful. In the last three years, Canadian exports of goods to Lebanon have increased by more than 60 per cent. (The biggest single export? Used cars.) “The link is very profitable to Canada,” says Dantziguian. “In Canada, we are a little bit inward-looking. The biggest business partner is America, and Canadians are not really interested in going to other places. It takes a country like Lebanon, which is very small, to be able to go around and explore. Why should we live in a ghetto? Because we’re Canadian we can’t go abroad?”
It is crass, Dantziguian suggests, to talk of “abuse” of Canada’s evacuation effort when the lives of Canadians were in danger. Yes, plenty of people have gone back to Lebanon, but many of those will likely return to Canada, and may well leave again. Globetrotting is just the Lebanese way.
Take the case of Mira Nahouli. The 31year-old Lebanese-Canadian investment banker was born in Beirut and lived in Paris and Los Angeles before settling in Montreal with her father, himself a Lebanese Canadian, for 10 years. After graduating from McGill, she moved to London and then back to Beirut. She paid her own way out of Beirut during the bombing and has since returned, much to the chagrin of her extended family in Montreal.
Like most Lebanese, Nahouli struggles to put her affection for Lebanon into words. It’s the people, the food, the chaos, the joie de vivre oí one of the Arab world’s few democracies. And if the country should descend into war once again—and she isn’t optimistic— she always has her Canadian passport. “To tell you the truth, one of the reasons I felt safe to come back after the war was because I had dual citizenship,” Nahouli says from her seat at a Beirut café overlooking the Mediterranean. “The best present my father ever gave me was a Canadian passport. Unfortunately, when you live in a country like this, you need a way out.” M
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