Lebanese Immigrants Boost West African Commerce

In West Africa, multiple generations of Lebanese have been vital members of the community since the early 1900s. Today, many say they retain a strong emotional connection to Lebanon, but, that Africa, where most were born, is home. Naomi Schwarz has more from Dakar in this second report of a five-part series on diaspora communities in West Africa. 

Church chants waft through a downtown street on a Sunday morning. The style is Middle Eastern, but the location is Dakar, Senegal, in the heart of West Africa.

Emile Chehouane attends church service here, at Notre Dame du Liban.

He was born in Senegal more than 70 years ago.

He says his parents emigrated from Lebanon in the 1920s looking for work. He has other relatives who ended up in America and elsewhere in the world.

It is estimated today that about 16 million Lebanese live outside Lebanon. Only about four million live in the country itself.

But they retain strong ties to the small middle-eastern country.

Zeina Zeidan chats with her mother in Arabic as she drives through downtown Dakar on her way home.

During the war last summer between Israel and Lebanon, Zeidan says, the Lebanese community watched the news avidly to find out what was happening back home.

As she speaks, her young son interjects from the back seat, showing that the emotional connection to Lebanon is ingrained at an early age.

Hezbollah made the Israelis run away, he says.

Zeidan is quick to say that she does not support terrorism or suicide bombers.

She says expatriate Lebanese supported Hezbollah because they defended her country when the government and army did nothing.

But despite her interest in Lebanon, Zeidan and other Lebanese in Senegal say they also feel very strong connections to their African home.

Like many Lebanese, Emile Chehouane speaks Wolof, Senegal's predominant African language, as well as he speaks French and Arabic.

Today the Lebanese embassy estimates there are more than 30,000 Lebanese in Senegal, as well as significant Lebanese populations in other countries throughout the region. Most are Shi'ite Muslim, but there are also Sunnis, and Protestant, Orthodox, and Maronite Christians. The community is close-knit across the diverse faiths.

The population is growing, but not because of new immigrants. The new Lebanese in West Africa are the third generation, children born here to parents also born in West Africa.

The first generation were key farmers and traders in peanuts, still one of Senegal's largest exports.

Today the majority of Lebanese work in commerce.

They own stores that sell clothes, hardware, groceries, fabric, furniture, and everything else. In some cases, the stores serve equally as venues for catching up with friends.

Many hold dual citizenship in Senegal and Lebanon, but participate in politics here.

Chehouane says he has served in several elected and unelected public service roles in Senegal, including member of his departmental council and president of his local Red Cross.

But despite the many ways African Lebanese have integrated into Senegalese life, they remain a community apart.

They marry within the Lebanese community, and form most of their closest friendships there too. It is not a question of discrimination they say, but a way to hold on to and share the culture they continue to hold dear.

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