Fadi Chehadé is co-CEO of Ethos Capital and was recently honored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York as a Great Immigrant. He was a member of the government schools at Harvard and Oxford.
Two years ago, an explosion 40 times larger than Chernobyl rocked the radiant Mediterranean city of Beirut, destroying almost half of its structures.
The destruction sparked a new wave of emigration – a familiar pattern in Lebanon’s history since the 19th century – the ensuing economic collapse, devaluing the local currency by 90% and bankrupting the country. But Lebanon still has a national treasure spared from this fiscal bankruptcy: its tenacious population and a capable diaspora devoted to its homeland.
The first wave of emigration from Lebanon took place from 1880 to 1914, sending 300,000 people to American shores after the collapse of the Lebanese silk economy. The second big wave of migrants exceeded one million, fleeing the 1975-1990 civil war that ravaged the whole country. At 18, I was one of many riding this wave to establish new roots in Los Angeles. And now a third wave has been triggered by the devastating explosion.
Together, all these waves have created one of the largest diasporas in the world per capita, with twice as many Lebanese living outside as inside Lebanon. And if they indeed empty Lebanon of its human skills, they also enrich the new lands that receive them.
Lebanese immigrants are known to be multicultural chameleons who thrive in any environment. They are ambitious, highly educated and enterprising. In their ranks you might recognize poet Kahlil Gibran, Nobel Laureate Elias Corey, Moderna co-founder Noubar Afeyan, political activist Ralph Nader, Senator George Mitchell, former CEO of Morgan Stanley John Mack, actress Salma Hayek and the current presidents of Paraguay and the Dominican Republic, Mario Abdo and Luis Abinader, to name a few among the illustrious list, hailing from a country the size of Vermont .
This diaspora is also distinguished by its seemingly unbreakable bond with Lebanon. At family Sunday tables across the Americas, many cling to their homeland vicariously through the preservation of its culinary riches and traditions. And every year, millions of Lebanese immigrants return to savor the beautiful Mediterranean beaches, mountain hamlets, ski resorts and art of their country. They all return with bags overflowing with Za’atar and local delicacies, having spent billions of dollars to fuel the local economy.
This summer, however, the state of the country is radically different.
The economic collapse is even more devastating than the bomb that tore Beirut apart. Extreme poverty is spreading rapidly to affect three-quarters of the population, leading former French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to declare that “Lebanon is the Titanic without an orchestra”.
Not so fast, Monsieur Le Drian.
Coupled with the famous tenacity of its inhabitants, the Lebanese diaspora still offers hope of reversing this deadly spiral. Appealing to foreign “saviours” is not a solution for a stable future. Instead, the Lebanese people – inside and outside – should forge a new alliance to restart the country.
The next Lebanon already has a rock-solid foundation: a rich land with an impressive Mediterranean coastline and a mountain range; young people who are creative and at ease with digital technology; an inclusive society that has always welcomed persecuted minorities; an adoring diaspora ready to collaborate; and an international community willing to help.
But, where to start this reboot?
To begin with, the Lebanese should organize a constitutional conference to define their vision. Budding Lebanese youth, aided by constitutional experts, should come together to imagine a new country with no less than Switzerland’s distributed bottom-up governance, Estonia’s digitized public services to abolish cronyism, efficient central infrastructure of Singapore, Finland’s world-class education system to empower a multicultural society, California’s digital valley remade for the Middle East, and Costa Rica’s green and pacifist strategy to thrive peacefully and sustainably in an otherwise brown and militarized.
Sound impossible? Just ask the Lebanese youth who turned the tons of shattered glass from the massive explosion into artistic glassware.
As descendants of the Phoenicians, spanning the globe, we now have the historic opportunity and responsibility to help a new Lebanon rise from its ashes. Armed with a new constitution made by the Lebanese for all the Lebanese, our country could be reborn as a beacon of moderation, inclusiveness and Eastern modernity.