Facts about the Lebanese migration to Brazil

It is widely known that there are more people of Lebanese descent in Brazil than there are citizens of Lebanon itself. Yet how many more is a matter for ongoing debate in both countries. Some estimates have put the number as high as 12 million, while others are as low as four or five. That puts the Lebanese–Brazilian population somewhere between 3 and 6 percent of the country’s total population of 200 million. Trying to get a reliable estimate is a lot harder than it may initially appear. (Executive Magazine report: How the Lebanese conquered Brazil)

No reliable estimates

The first issue is documentation. There are no reliable estimates for the number of Lebanese people that arrived in Brazil in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And when they were recorded, because their documents came from the Ottoman Empire, they were called turkos — making no distinction between Lebanese, Syrians and other groups.

As Oswaldo Truzzi writes in the book by Roberto Khatlab “Lebanese migrants to Brazil: An Annotated Bibliography,” “For a long time, the data on immigration flows from the region was classified under one category ‘other nationalities’ in Brazil. Only in the state of São Paulo, where immigration services became more effective after 1908, were these immigrants registered as Turk, Turk-Asian, Lebanese, or Syrian. Between 1908 and 1941, these groups amounted to 4 percent (48,326 individuals) of the total of immigrants that entered the state.”

In 1920 and 1940 the national censuses offered the first official estimates of the numbers of Lebanese and Syrians in the country. Strangely, despite ongoing immigration, there were officially fewer in 1940 (46,614) than in 1920 (50,246). In recent years that number has fallen still, “becoming statistically of little significance” according to Truzzi. Yet this is likely due to reporting methods — Brazil’s census does not differentiate between Brazilians whose parents or grandparents are of foreign origin. Lebanese have also intermarried with other Brazilian groups, with many losing their Arabic name in the process.

Guita Hourani, director of the Lebanese Emigration Research Center at the Notre Dame University near Beirut, says she believes the number is between 6 and 8 million, but certainly not higher. “Lebanon’s population in 1900 is estimated to have been 380,000. Hence, it is scientifically impossible that the emigrant population would increase to 12 or more million, while the remaining population in Lebanon would increase to 3.8 million.” She points out that some of the overestimates have come from the prominent role of Lebanese in Brazilian society. Some, for example, have extrapolated that because around 10 percent of Brazilian parliamentarians have Lebanese roots, they make up 10 percent of the population, a point she says is unfounded since “parliamentarians are elected by everyone regardless of their origins.” There is also the problem of self-identification — many who are perhaps just one-eighth Lebanese will often feel proud of their roots, yet they have little realistic claim to Lebanese nationality.

Hourani believes that the Lebanese successes in Brazil are even more impressive when put into the context of their relative size. “Exaggerating the numbers eclipses the success of this small population … that has a high level of exposure in their immigration countries.”

Non-Christian migration

While the vast majority of Lebanese emigration to Brazil has been from the country’s Christian population, a smaller percentage of the population came from the Muslim and Jewish communities. Reliable numbers are unfortunately unavailable, but estimates suggest that between 10 and 15 percent of Lebanese–Brazilians are of non-Christian descent.

The Muslim community
Hussein Kalout, a Lebanese–Brazilian academic who is currently a visiting professor at Harvard’s political science department, comes from a Shia family. His father emigrated to Brazil in the 1960s but he speaks Arabic and has lived part of his life in Lebanon.

He describes four main waves of Lebanese emigration, the first of which — from the 1870s until the mid-20th century — was overwhelmingly Christian. Muslim immigration, he says, really began during World War II and picked up during a third wave in the Lebanese Civil War of 1975–90. The final wave, he says, started after the war as Israel’s 1982–2000 occupation of southern Lebanon grated on the local population — with many from the Shia population moving for economic reasons.

For Kalout, Lebanese–Brazilian Muslims remain more connected to Lebanon and particularly to the Arabic language than their Christian counterparts. “The Lebanese Muslims are more connected to the land, to the religion and to the language,” he says. “If you ask how many Lebanese–Brazilian Christians speak Arabic, compared to the Lebanese–Brazilian Muslims, the difference is huge.”

This is partly due to chronology, as they emigrated later. Yet Kalout also thinks the connection to the region is greater. “I don’t think the third generation Shia will become equal to the third generation Christians [in their connection with Lebanon] because they are more linked with the country, more linked to the situation,” he says. While he thinks that many, like himself, have become largely irreligious in Brazil’s more secular society, Lebanese–Brazilian Muslims remain politically aware of events in the Middle East.

Lebanese–Brazilian Muslims are prominent in many areas of Brazilian society — in particular academia and medicine. Kalout adds that the distinction between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam has not historically replicated itself in Brazil, with shared mosques and a unified Muslim federation.

Underscoring the importance of language, there are a growing number of Arabic-language educational bodies in the country. “In some cities in southern Brazil they have started to create Arab schools — not just a school to teach Arabic but a school to put your children to learn in Arabic.”

The Jewish community
The Lebanese Jewish emigration to Brazil was predominantly in the latter half of the 20th century. Since the Nakba and concomitant birth of Israel in 1948, Arab Jews across the Middle East have often faced animosity and violence.

Sheila Mann was just 13 in 1967. Her family had been in Lebanon for “generations and generations,” but when the Six Day War started between Israel and Jordan, Syria and Egypt, hostility grew toward the Lebanese Jewish community. “When we found out Israel had won the war; the Lebanese army was worried the people would attack the Jewish district [of central Beirut] so they closed it off. We had blackouts at night so nobody knew we were in.”

“One day they had a demonstration near my home. From my veranda I could see one protester putting a photo of [Egyptian leader] Gamal Abdel Nasser on the barricades to provoke us,” she says. Scared for their children, her parents decided to leave the country — initially for Israel. Within a decade, she says, all the Lebanese Jews she knew had left the country.

Yet her parents never liked Israel and would constantly bemoan their refugee status, longing for a return to Beirut. Mann, too, was never happy in Israel and at age 18 moved to Brazil with her new husband. “For me Lebanon is part of my life, my being. I cannot imagine not thinking about Lebanon. It was a happy time, my childhood,” she says.

Lebanese–Brazilian Jews are relatively few but very successful. Perhaps foremost among them is the Safra family — owners of the Safra Group. The head of the family, Joseph Safra, is estimated by Forbes to be the second richest person in Brazil, with a personal fortune of $15.9 billion.

Mann says she thinks that the forced nature of their emigration has made many members of the Lebanese–Brazilian Jewish community skeptical of other Lebanese–Brazilians. “I have a lot of difficulties to convince them to be more open and they consider me a fool.” She now runs an organization called Peace on the Table, which brings together Muslim and Jewish women of Middle Eastern descent to break down barriers over food.

(Source: Executive Magazine - By: Joe Dyke)


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