I have recently completed a month-long trip to Brazil in which I was reporting extensively on the Lebanese-Brazilian diaspora (and watching the World Cup!) For those that don’t know, there are perhaps twice as many Brazilians of Lebanese descent as there are people inside Lebanon itself. They are also hugely powerful and economically successful.
As such I spent a few weeks meeting senior Lebanese-Brazilians, including an interview with Michel Temer – Brazil’s vice-president. I also wrote an extensive history of Lebanese emmigration to Brazil, which was fascinating to research and write. I have copied and pasted the first part of it below.
You can view all the articles here.
Two years ago, Amin Maalouf — perhaps the most famous Lebanese social scientist — made a trip to São Paulo, Brazil’s most populous city. Speaking at a prominent club for Lebanese expatriates, he declared that for many, Brazil was the materialization of the Lebanese dream.
It is hard to disagree with him. Perhaps more so than any other country outside of their homeland, the Lebanese run Brazil. In virtually every sector of the economy, some of the most powerful individuals can trace their lineage back to the Cedar country.
Though the exact number is disputed, it is clear that there are at least 6 million Brazilians of Lebanese origin. In business, economics, culture and many other fields, Lebanese people sit at the top of Brazilian society. Despite making up less than 5 percent of the population, 10 percent of parliamentarians have Lebanese origins.
Yet these migrants were not always so successful. Arriving in the late 1800s, much of the first generation brought with them nothing but the clothes on their backs. The story of how they came to make up the Brazilian elite is one of free markets, risky decisions, stigma, and above all, hard work.
Cheap Chinese goods flooding the market, undermining profits and forcing businesses into bankruptcy — it may sound a distinctly modern story, borne of an era of rapid globalization. Yet for those with knowledge of Lebanese history, today’s crisis in the West is merely an echo of the events that helped provoke the first wave of mass emigration in the late nineteenth century.
Eliane Fersan, a researcher on the history of Lebanese migration, has documented a number of factors that led to a huge wave of migration in that period. Among these was, perhaps unsurprisingly for a fragmented region, violence. In 1860, a war between Maronite Christians and Druze communities led to the deaths of thousands of people. The lack of Ottoman protection for the Christian community, coupled with the fear of conscription into the Turkish armies, convinced the first few pioneers to seek safer shores.
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