My family’s relationship with the tiny Mediterranean country of Lebanon is probably as long and as complicated as the history of the country itself, although our collective memories only stretch back a hundred or so years.
In the early 1900s, a Lebanese man arrived at Ellis Island in the Upper New York Bay. Fleeing Ottoman Muslim persecution, Boutros Salim Aziz, my great-grandfather, was looking for a safe haven. Boutros’s father was the local Maronite Catholic priest of Jezzine, a small Christian village in the mountains inland from Sidon, a port city once visited by Christ (Matthew 15:21).
Maronite Catholics, a branch of Roman Catholicism found across the Arabic Levant, are given special dispensations from the Vatican due to their historical oppression and minority status – including the right for priests to marry. For seven generations in Jezzine, a son of the Aziz family led the Christian community.
Boutros was not alone at Ellis Island. As the Ottoman Empire entered into a decline, and Christians across its different provinces began to suffer exacerbated discrimination, thousands of Christians from modern-day Lebanon, Syria, Armenia, and elsewhere began moving to Western countries, particularly the US, for a better life.
Laws discriminated against Christians in Ottoman-controlled Lebanon, young men feared military conscription, and the Druze (a religious group that follow unique teachings rooted in Shi’a Islam) and the Christians entered years of in-fighting as Ottoman control weakened, sparking this massive exodus.
My grandmother’s family, from the same village as that of her future husband, also emigrated to the US during this period. My grandparents, both children of Christian Lebanese immigrants, grew up across the street from each other in northern New Jersey.
This period of instability did not last forever (although in Lebanon, it’s usually a guarantee that instability is always hovering around the corner). After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the French shared control of the Levant with the British and carved out modern-day Lebanon from Syria to create a safe haven for the remaining Christians living there.
The history surrounding this period, and the actions of these Western powers, remains controversial. However for the Christians in Lebanon, what followed was a long period of peace, self-rule, and the absence of religious persecution. Beirut, the new capital, became known as the “Paris of the Middle East” and the comparatively cosmopolitan nature of the country became a touristic selling point, along with the sandy Mediterranean beaches and snow-capped mountains.
Slowly, relatives began trickling back to Lebanon. An uncle and his sister went to Lebanon to teach at a university. An aunt married a Lebanese citizen and raised three children in and out of the country.
When the devastating, multi-sectarian Civil War began in the 1970s, nearly everyone left again. Family members fled to wherever they could get a visa – Rome, Montreal, Mexico, Texas. But in the 1990s, stability returned, and so did many in my family. In 2008 I came to Lebanon to study at the American University of Beirut, in the same department in which my great uncle taught before the Civil War broke out. Soon my sister followed to stay for a summer, and then another. My parents and brother flew out to join us whenever they could, driving to Jezzine to see our relatives.
I graduated last year, but was unable to leave Lebanon. What stopped me? It was a feeling that I realised later could be best described as “called” to stay. I took a job with a Christian organisation doing amazing work for God during a time of utter darkness as the Syrian conflict bleeds ever further into Lebanon.
Like my family, I do not believe I will always live in Lebanon. I feel torn between my home in California where my immediate family lives and my home in Lebanon where my work has meaning and value for the land my family once left. But for at least the next year, I look forward to sharing my thoughts and experiences with you from my perspective as both an insider and outsider, as I continue to watch wonderful men and women of God transform this region.