Over the past two weeks, 14 young adults from North America have been experiencing Lebanon in a way they never imagined before.
Lebanon has long been a transient nation due to regional unrest and conflict. Its common for Lebanese to refer to their family members living abroad and to comment that far more Lebanese live outside the country than within its borders.
Many of Lebanese young people have been born and raised abroad, some without ever returning to the land of their ancestry. Others return only for the occasional summer visit, spending their time with family in remote villages without seeing a full picture of their homeland.
Back to Roots, an organization launched in 2010, is working to reconnect the youth of the Lebanese diaspora with their heritage by bringing a group of Lebanese young people from North America each summer for a two week immersion experience.
"We bring Lebanese-Americans [and] Lebanese-Canadians, who have had either very little or very limited experiences with Lebanon, to Lebanon for two weeks. And a lot of them come with the impression that they have gotten from their parents, which is often that Lebanon is a very dangerous place, or some of them who have been here before have the idea that Lebanon is partying and fun and nightlife. So either impression that you have, there is a lot in the middle that you're missing. And that's what we're trying to fill in," Maya Gebeily, assistant director of BTR, told StepFeed.
Gebeily is herself an alumna of the program and is passionate about showing other Lebanese young people a different perspective on their native homeland. She explained that during the two weeks, the participants not only tour Lebanon but meet with various NGOs, startups and organizations making a positive impact in Lebanese society.
"I didn't know that there were so many NGOs, these modern-style NGOs. I know [Lebanon] isn't backwards but sometimes you don't think that [it] is so modernized. There are all these Lebanese people starting these NGOs and its very Westernized," participant Natalia Tohmé from Florida said.
"It's so much more different being on the ground [in Lebanon] and meeting the people that are starting new non-profits or have been in business for a few years now and are doing really great things. But you just don't know about it because it isn't really publicized," Anthony Aslou from Florida said.
Although some of the participants had visited family in Lebanon before, for others these past two weeks were their very first exposure to Lebanon.
"My mom's from here. She moved to the U.S. when she was 18 and she has always wanted me to come to Lebanon. My [extended] family never really wanted me to come due to the scare of war and everything," Marco from New York said.
"It's way different than I thought it would be. … I think its better than where I live actually. … I love it here."
Part of the purpose of the program is to "plant cedar leaders around the world" and it would seem the program has inspired some of the leaders-to-be have decided to plant roots in the land of their heritage.
"I would love to move here," said Marie-Anne Hobeika from New Hampshire.
"I want to move here and I want that kind of lifestyle for myself, for my kids."
Anthony Aslou from Florida also hopes for a future connected to Lebanon.
"Right before I came here I was talking to one of my colleagues and we were both discussing how we are interested in starting up a consultancy firm or a nonprofit. Something where we can tackle an issue for the general Middle East region," he said.
"I definitely want to involve Lebanon."
Gebeily told us that since the program launched, it has evolved a great deal. She explain that when it started, nobody really anticipated only a few years later they would have to be selective in accepting applicants. As the program is fully funded with the exception of airfare, BTR can only accept a limited number of individuals each year.
However, there are tentative plans to expand the program in the future, particularly opening up the initiative to Lebanese-Europeans who'd like to participate.
"We've been exploring new funding options, getting business sponsorships, Lebanese-Americans who have a history of philanthropic activity and are willing to donate big chunks of money, we're looking into that. So we are exploring ways of making the program more sustainable," Gebeily said.
Thus far, it seems Back to Roots has been successful in inspiring future leaders and connecting young people of the Lebanese diaspora with the land of their ancestors.