Looking Back While Moving Forward: The Story Of A First Generation Lebanese American

The scenic view from the Chouf Mountains in Lebanon

This poignant story was written by Leila Baadarani, a recent intern with Long Island Wins. She shares her tale of visiting Lebanon, escaping the emerging conflict, and her eventual return and integration of a culture that was she felt was always her birthright.

As my brother and I were playing in the garden at the Archeology Museum of the American University of Beirut, my father overheard people speaking about how two Israeli soldiers had been kidnapped. Growing up in war-ravaged Lebanon, as my father did, he developed a sixth sense. He knew war was coming. We immediately packed our bags, and my parents were waiting until morning to leave. During the night there was an Israeli air strike that destroyed the airport. This was our only escape route back home to the United States. It was 2006, I was 6 years old, and I was now stuck in Lebanon, a country once again at war.

Soldiers walking along the Beirut coast this past summer

I am the daughter of an immigrant. On my father’s side, I am the first generation to be born and raised in the United States. My father grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, a small country in the Middle East bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, Israel, and Syria. Although my father did not grow up with extensive means, he was fortunate enough that his parents prioritized education. Due to the French colonization of Lebanon from 1920-1943, French private schools became common in Lebanon. Since my father received a French education and excelled academically, when the time came to go to college, he was part of the initial group of students sponsored by a foundation to study abroad in the United States. With a full scholarship to Boston University and little to no knowledge of English, my dad took the courageous steps of traveling to a foreign land with the hopes of building a better future.

As my father tried to acclimate to his new home, he was joined by many other Lebanese students, which made adjusting easier. It was at Boston University that my dad met my mom, who grew up in Westchester County, New York. Coming from an American family that is religiously observant, one can imagine the look on her father’s face when my mom said she was dating a Lebanese Muslim. Nonetheless, my father persevered to become fluent in English, learned how to navigate not only college, but also a new country, and wooed my mom, all at the same time. To say the least, my existence proves that he was successful in all aspects.

Despite the hesitant acceptance my grandfather showed towards my father, he still resisted letting his daughter travel to Lebanon. He had always given my mom the freedom to live life as she saw fit, but for the first couple years of her dating, my father he refused to allow her to travel to the Middle East. The first time my mother’s father “allowed” her to go to Lebanon was after they were married and my older brother was born. He was hesitant to let his daughter venture over to a previously war-torn country, but he understood that the bond of family overcame the fear of conflict.

On the cruise ship, the Orient Queen, sailing away from Beirut.

The first time my family went to Lebanon and every time since, my mom has been welcomed with open arms. The reception from my dad’s family was extremely warm and hospitable, despite my mom’s religious upbringing. My dad’s family bonded with my mom based on their shared values: kindness towards others, respect for my father, and the unconditional love for her growing family. The mutual acceptance of both families of one another was a decisive factor in the success of their long-term relationship.

After the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War, we did not return to Lebanon until this summer, 11 years later. My expectations for our trip to visit my father’s family in Beirut, Lebanon were highly influenced by my experience in 2006. My memories of Lebanon back then are faint, but I will never forget finding shelter from the bombs, being evacuated to safety on a cruise ship that was escorted by the U.S. Destroyer Gonzalez, being brought to a refugee camp in Cyprus, and saying goodbye to my extended family for what could have been the last time.

The U.S. Destroyer Gonzalez

Returning to the same place years later, I was hesitant to do anything besides sit in my grandparents apartment. I fondly remember the inside of those four walls as opposed to the outside world, where it seemed like everyone was always in a hushed panic, waiting for the next thing to go wrong. Despite the underlying fear I had from previous experiences, I realized that anything can go wrong anywhere in the world, and if I chose to live in fear, then I would never live a full life.

The Mediterranean Sea

The first time I walked out onto the street in Beirut in July 2017 was to get “Manousheh”, a doughy breakfast delicacy topped with either Za’atar — a traditional Lebanese spice — or cheese, for our family breakfast. I was with my dad, mom, and brother, since I was not allowed to walk alone. As we passed by a variety of shops I kept the mindset to be quiet, quick, and invisible. My dad told us little things about each shop he recognized from his childhood.

“This is where I bought my shoes, this is where I got my first pair of glasses,” he told us.

As we continued to walk through another world, I got to live through my father’s experience of growing up through the good times in Beirut. My father showed us places that had been there when he was a child, and stores that still had the same name, but had been reduced to shells covered with the scars of war.

As the first week progressed and we went out more and more, I quickly adjusted to my surroundings. I even picked up expressions in Lebanese vernacular such as “Yalla habibi,” which means “come on my love.” I often heard this phrase from my family as I lagged behind trying to take in the historical and wondrous sites Beirut has to offer. Lebanon is a small country, spanning approximately 4,036 square miles, and I wanted to discover every inch of it. Within every mile there was a new hidden gem, and we experienced everything ranging from mountains to the sea. My brother and I took the liberty to go out with our cousins several times that first week and our senses were overloaded with different foods, extended family, and new found friendships. As we continued to expand our adventures, I became more and more grateful that this time, at 17 years old, I was fully able to absorb all the scents, sounds, and sights that I was too young to appreciate and fully remember in 2006.

When I was 6 years old, I only spoke English, a language that is third on the list of languages spoken in Lebanon. I chose to study French in school because I knew that if Arabic was not being taught, French would be the next best way to learn how to speak more fluently with my relatives. At 17 years old, I can now communicate with my family primarily through French. My relatives speak Arabic, French, and broken English; however, the younger generations have been educated to speak English fluently. Despite the language barrier that has limited me in the past, I was having full conversations in French with my grandma, my dear Teta — Arabic for Grandma — Leila, whom I was named after. Being able to hear my relatives’ stories in French and Arabic only further convinced me to learn Arabic fluently. Hearing their stories has brought on a stronger desire to get closer to my roots and my family through language.

A man frying falafel

Being fully immersed in a culture that is my own, one which I never had the chance to be a distinct part of, helped me delve deeper into what it means to be Lebanese. As I spent two weeks stuffing myself with my Teta Leila’s food, looking through photo albums, and seeing bits and pieces of myself in almost all of my relatives, my appreciation grew for the world of opportunity that has been opened to me due to my father’s cultural background. As an immigrant, he worked hard for his citizenship and everything he holds to his name. My father is aware that he was fortunate to become an American, but he worked tirelessly to obtain the lifestyle he now leads. Learning from my father’s failures and successes has been an invaluable part of my upbringing.

Currently, I use the education I am grateful to receive to give back to communities similar to the one my father grew up in. I help my local community through volunteer work at the Boys and Girls Club. As I assist the 7 year olds, some of the immigrant children cautiously started to open up about how their families got here and where they live now. The stories they share with me are ones of courage. They helped me realize that the struggles most immigrants face are often overlooked, but experienced by many. One little girl was telling me she lives in one small and crowded apartment with her mother, father, two brothers, grandmother, and uncle. She does well in school and is extremely bright, but at 7 years old, she already knows that because of her status as an immigrant she has less opportunity available to her.

For that little girl and those like her, I hope to someday open doors of opportunity that have been closed to those who are not as fortunate as my father was, so that they too can use their full potential in the country they call home.