Lebanese in Australia: Facts & Figures

The office of the Consulate-General of Lebanon in Melbourne is indebted to the contribution of Prof. Trevor Batrouney who has provided us with the following article about the waves of Lebanese immigration to Australia and their modes of lives. Furthermore, Prof. Batrouney was courteous enough to have sent us a list containing a set of links that proved to be of significant value.


This paper explores the multiple means by which the Lebanese-born in Australia seek to maintain links with their former homeland, with particular reference to the common practice of return visits to Lebanon. This will involve an examination of the contribution of communications technology (such as telephone calls, videotapes, cable television and the internet) in enabling individuals and families to engage in personal and cultural communication. A particular focus will be on the motivations; frequency and activities of Lebanese-Australians’ return visits to Lebanon. The methodology will include analyses of statistical data and a small-scale survey of Lebanese-born. The paper will conclude with an evaluation of the impact of these activities on attitudes to Lebanon and Australia and on the self-perceived identities of Australian-Lebanese.

The Context: Lebanese Migration to Australia

The Lebanese presence in Australia has been achieved through three successive waves: the first from around 1880 to the 1920s, the second from 1947 to 1975, and the third from 1976, which marked the beginning of the civil war in Lebanon, to the present. The period following the civil war has seen a reduction in Lebanese migration to Australia and a significant rise in the number of short-term return visits to Lebanon. This reflects release of the pent-up demand for a return to Lebanon after the civil war.

The descendants of the first wave settlers now extend to five and six generations while second-wave Australian-Lebanese include at least three generations. The third wave, which came to Australia during and after the civil war in Lebanon, typically extends to two generations. A major difference across each of the immigrant waves has been that of size. The pioneer settlers represented a small and alien group within a predominantly Anglo-Celtic community in Australia. The second wave substantially increased the size of the Lebanese population in Australia. However the most profound changes in terms of size, composition and settlement needs came with the exodus from Lebanon during and after the civil war. The first two waves were predominantly Christian, while the third wave was predominantly Muslim.

The Lebanese presence in Australia is indicated not only by the Lebanese-born but also by their descendants. The Lebanese-born population of Australia stood at 70,325 persons in the 1996 census. Of these, 52.5 per cent were males and 47.5 per cent were females. An estimate of the total Lebanese population in Australia, consisting of Lebanese-born and their descendants, is approaching 250,000. Although Lebanese are to be found throughout Australia, they are concentrated in the two largest states of New South Wales (75 per cent) and Victoria (20 per cent).

The different historical periods, each with their different ‘push’ factors, affected the religious composition of the three waves of immigrants. Muslims now constitute 38.6 per cent of the Lebanese-born persons in Australia with Sunni making up 34 per cent and Shiite around two per cent. Catholics account for around 40 per cent of Lebanese-born in Australia, including Maronites (30 per cent) and Melkites (10 per cent). The Antiochian Orthodox account for at least 11 per cent of Lebanese-born in Australia. Smaller numbers of Druse and Protestants are also found among the Lebanese-born.

Maintaining Contacts with Lebanon

Lebanese migrants have always sought to maintain contact with their families in Lebanon and in other parts of the diaspora. However, the ways in which they have maintained these contacts have varied greatly over the 120 years and more of Lebanese migration to Australia.

First Wave Immigrants

First wave Lebanese immigrants relied for communication on letters containing photographs and remittances sent by post and less frequently delivered by hand by those returning to Lebanon. In this way some contact was maintained with family members, not only in Lebanon but also in the United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and other diaspora countries. However, the expense and rarity of travel meant that these family members dispersed throughout the world would typically never meet again. These international contacts were essential in the formation of Lebanese communities in major cities of the diaspora. People emigrating from Lebanon were informed about those who had preceded them to a particular city or region and subsequently made contact with them.

The Formation of a Lebanese Community

The small Lebanese community in Melbourne, Australia provides an example. By the early years of the twentieth century, a small colony of Lebanese had settled in Melbourne. These families made initial contact with each other through word of mouth and maintained this contact over the years. They often worked together as hawkers, shopkeepers or wholesalers and shared social activities such as visiting each other and meeting on Sundays in the Exhibition Gardens. In this way these early Lebanese migrants sought to recreate the communal life of the villages they had left behind.

Their first communal activity was to help establish a Greek Orthodox Church in Melbourne in 1902. However, attendance at the Greek Church did not fully meet the spiritual and social needs of the small group of Lebanese families in Melbourne. Despite the fact that these families had been living in Melbourne without their own place of worship for up to forty years, the desire to establish their own church did not fade over time. By the late 1920s, most families had become established in business and their children were either attending school or had commenced work. Now seemed the right time to found their own church. Thus St Nicholas Antiochian (then called ‘Syrian’) Orthodox Church, which was established in 1931, was to provide the sole communal centre for Lebanese in Melbourne until the 1950s.

Given the small size of these communities in Australia and the rarity of return visits to Lebanon, maintaining contact by mail with Lebanese families in other cities or countries in the diaspora was an important means of obtaining suitable marriage partners, at least in terms of ethnicity and religion. For example, one Melbourne Lebanese family of four sons obtained marriage partners in the early years of the twentieth century from New Zealand and the Australian states of South Australia, New South Wales and regional Victoria.

At the same time as establishing families and communities in the diaspora, Lebanese migrants were active in sending remittances to Lebanon, to fund further migration of family members, to build or refurbish homes in case of future return, and to support aged parents and relatives. The significance of remittances for the Lebanese economy can be seen by the fact that by 1917 they accounted for some 40 per cent of the national income estimate of Lebanon (Issawi in Hourani and Shehadi, 1992: p. 27).

This period was marked by limited and delayed communication between Australia and Lebanon and rare return visits. This led to these Australian Lebanese communities becoming isolated in a sea of Anglo-Celtic Australians which, together with other factors, was a recipe for their rapid and extensive assimilation (McKay, 1989).

Second Wave Immigrants

A common pattern among second wave immigrants was for young men to migrate alone or in the company of others like themselves. While their major motivation was economic improvement, it was often expressed in terms of love of adventure and desire to seek new opportunities. In all cases they left immediate family in Lebanon such as parents, brothers or sisters and extended families. Over the years these young men would either marry within the Lebanese community or return home to bring back a bride. Marriage to a girl from one’s village increased the number of people to be contacted in Lebanon or in the diaspora.

In their early years in Australia their major means of communication were letters and, as one respondent put it: ‘never a letter without cash’. These letters were sometimes accompanied by photographs and, less frequently, by audiotapes. They were invariably sent by mail as the postal service between Australia and Lebanon was entirely adequate during the 1950s and 1960s. Money, clothes and gifts were also sent through people returning to their village or town. In return, the family would send letters and small gifts from Lebanon. Occasionally, audiotapes of special functions such as weddings, christenings were also sent and received by family members. During this period people did not use the telephone as it was prohibitively expensive.

These second wave immigrants described common feelings of early loneliness as they missed parents, brothers, sisters and friends and that letters were ‘not enough to keep in touch.’ Some single men experienced less loneliness if they had contacts within the Lebanese community or were confident enough to mix socially with Australians by attending local dances. Over time, the urgency with which they sought information about the place and the people they left behind diminished as the imperatives of their new life began to assume priority. These immigrants described how, over time, they began ‘to take an interest in their new life’ until they reached a point, after many years in Australia, of recognizing it as their home.

The need to maintain contact included not only normal filial feelings but also a sense of obligation to assist their family. This often involved assisting family members and, sometimes, fellow villagers to emigrate and settle in Australia. In this way the second wave was following in the footsteps of Lebanese emigrants of earlier years who maintained contact and provided assistance to their family and village.

A second reason for maintaining contact was to obtain information about Lebanon and the Middle East. This was particularly important in the period before the establishment of Arabic newspapers and other Arabic media in Australia and before news about the Middle East was widely reported in Australian papers. They gained information through letters from family and friends and through receiving magazines in Arabic or French about affairs in Lebanon and the Middle East. However this information was usually some months old.

An Noor: An Australian-Lebanese Journal

A major development, during this period, was the publication of a monthly journal in Melbourne, which provided information from overseas and news about Lebanese-Australian communities throughout the country. A small group of community activists published the first edition of An Noor (the Light) on Lebanon’s National Day, 22 November 1963. Its first editorial, ‘A New Light is Born,’ outlines the aims of this magazine:
The publishers take pride in presenting Australia’s first Lebanese monthly magazine and, unlike any present or past Lebanese publications, “AN NOOR” is not confined to any one state or section of the Lebanese community or to membership of any association but will be available and on sale to every Lebanese person in Australia.

Over the four and a half years of its existence An Noor included regular news and articles about Lebanon and the Middle East as well as news about the Australian-Lebanese communities throughout Australia. It featured items on National Day celebrations; community functions attended by Lebanese consuls and Australian politicians; family events such as marriages, births and christenings; profiles of prominent Australian-Lebanese; and commentary on Australian national events. The aim of representing news and views of the Australian –Lebanese community as a whole was largely achieved and An Noor attracted broad support and readership. However, the demands of producing a monthly magazine proved too great for the resources of this volunteer group and, after four and a half years, the An Noor experiment came to an end.

Arabic Media in the 1970s

By the 1970s Australian-Lebanese communities were maturing with a range of religious and welfare organisations being established. A major Arabic newspaper, El Telegraph, was published in 1970 and the first Arabic radio programs were produced by the State Broadcasting Service (SBS) in the 1970s. Thus this decade was a watershed in terms of communication about Lebanon and the Middle East and also about the Australian-Lebanese communities in Australia. The growing number of return visits to Lebanon during this time also increased communication about Lebanon and their village. Upon their return from overseas these second wave immigrants would typically be visited by members of their families and fellow villagers during which information about the home country would be relayed and any gifts and letters distributed.

In terms of maintaining contacts with family and place, second wave immigrants were the transitional group in that they lived through the communications technology revolution. Upon arrival and during their first years in Australia their communication was as restricted as their first wave counterparts. However, the explosion of information and communication technologies in the 1990s provided second wave immigrants with the opportunity to use cheaper telephone calls, videotapes, email and the internet in communication with family and friends in Lebanon. These have the advantage of providing direct, immediate and relatively cheap communication and information. On the other hand, as members of this group are now in their sixties and seventies, their age and experience limit their use of these more modern media, except through younger members of their families.

Third Wave Immigrants

The experiences of third wave immigrants to Australia have been different to those of the first two waves. Their motivation to leave Lebanon was not primarily economic but to flee the civil war and all that accompanied it. They typically migrated in family groups and often with limited material or psychological preparation before leaving their country. They often found themselves in a staging post such as Cyprus or Athens before finally arriving in Australia. Unlike the first two immigrant waves, a significant number returned permanently to Lebanon. Of the 20,000 the Australian Government accepted between 1976-78, several thousand returned to Lebanon to reduce the net intake for the period 1976-81 to around 17,000. Their arrival in Australia coincided with an economic downturn resulting in significant and persistent unemployment, which would also have provided some with the motivation to return home permanently.

Given the conditions in Lebanon during the war, the urgency to keep in touch with remaining family, to assist them financially and to gain information about developments in Lebanon was even stronger than with the first two waves. During this time, the immigrants’ sense of family obligation was strengthened by the personal suffering and economic hardship experienced by many families.

The origin of village community organizations in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s was the urgent desire to keep abreast of developments and to offer assistance to people in their home village during the war (Nabti in Hourani and Shehadi, 1992 p.41). These village organizations were important in maintaining contact with family during those periods when the postal service was not operating. Village organizations have continued their humanitarian activities but over time have developed activities more related to their communities in Australia.

Arabic Media in the 1990s

The last ten years have brought about considerable changes in the range of media available to Arabic speakers, including Lebanese, in Australia. The four major Lebanese newspapers are published in Sydney with small sections dedicated to Melbourne community news and advertising. The oldest Arabic newspaper is the El Telegraph, which is politically neutral. Al Bairak started as a Lebanese leftist paper and although its prime motivation is commercial, it still retains something of its original orientation. An Nahar, although it originally had a leftist orientation, now has no political line but offers two to three pages of community announcements. The newest newspaper and the one with the highest circulation is El Herald, which is supported by the Lebanese Nationalist Movement.

A variety of radio programs cater for the Lebanese communities throughout Australia. These typically contain news from Arabic-speaking countries and from around Australia. In addition to the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), there are ethnic radio stations and community radio programs. Some project a particular political line while others are for particular sections of the community such as women and young people. Television programs have also revealed great diversity due to the different Lebanese groups seeking a voice and advances in communications technology. In addition to the occasional Arabic television program on SBS, there is a community television channel, which offers a range of community news. Some people also have access to cable television such as LBC (Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation) and ART (Arab Radio and Television) which offer a twenty-four hour news service and show a variety of telecasts such as Arabic films, sports and general entertainment programs.

During the Lebanese Civil War the press and other media became politicised as they identified with one or another of the warring factions in Lebanon. However, over recent years, there has been an increased focus on entertainment and local or overseas news of personal or community importance.

Civil War and Communications

The impact of the civil war on communications was profound. Just at a time when families in Australia were most anxious about their relatives in Lebanon, the normal postal and telephone services were disrupted. People in Australia were forced to send letters and remittances with those who were able to return safely. For example, in 1976 a Lebanese community leader in Melbourne returned to Lebanon to assist with the safe passage of Lebanese refugees, first to Cyprus and then Australia. On that trip he carried five kilograms of letters and parcels, each containing money for Bcharre and surrounding villages. A second impact of the war was the need to communicate with relatives in Lebanon through surrounding centres such as Damascus or Cyprus. Finally, the war limited extensive return trips to Lebanon so that some Australian-Lebanese reported a gap of some 15 to 20 years in seeing their relatives and friends.

By the 1990s communication by letter had declined, with Christmas cards and photos of special occasions being the main postal communication. The telephone had become the most common form of communication, encouraged by cheaper calls and special rates provided by telephone companies. Some families, especially the younger members, are also communicating through email and internet phone. Each of these media has the advantage of immediacy and two-way communication, essential if arrangements are being made. One respondent described communication by telephone: ‘you feel like you are talking to them for real’.

While people acknowledged the greater ease and increased facilities for communication now available, the longer people stayed in Australia the less frequent the communication. One respondent claimed that, despite the improved facilities, communication is now less personal and more commercialized than before. No longer is it necessary to visit those who are going to or returning from Lebanon to take or receive letters and gifts or to band together in village groups to send funds and gifts to one’s home village. Individual communication has replaced collective efforts.

Lebanese immigrants have an abiding interest in affairs in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, which intensified during the 1967 war and the later civil war. They always wanted to know what was happening as they were ‘concerned for the well-being of grandparents, friends, relatives and loved ones.’ Sources of information about events in Lebanon and the Middle East have become more varied and extensive over time. While patterns of usage varied across families, information was gained from an extensive range of media. These included mainstream Australian media such as newspapers, radio and television with respondents commenting that there was now more news on the Middle East than before. Arabic newspapers, which were the first Arabic media, are still valued for information about the Australian-Lebanese community. However, they are becoming less relied upon for overseas news, which can be obtained more directly and quickly through radio and television. Lack of knowledge of written Arabic of second and later generations is also limiting the reach of Arabic newspapers. As a result, circulation of some Arabic newspapers is declining leading to funding problems.

Australian SBS radio programs in Arabic are most commonly used for news while cable television, either LBC or ART, has brought Lebanese and Middle Eastern news and entertainment into the homes of Lebanese in Australia in real time: ‘it is always on at our home; we never watch English movies.’ The internet also provides the opportunity to read Arabic newspapers. The immediacy of information and entertainment through these media ensures that those living in Australia can be as well informed as those living in Lebanon. More importantly, they can contribute to the feeling of homeliness as familiar language, scenes and people appear on their television screens in their homes every night. In a sense, Beirut becomes present in Melbourne.

Other means of obtaining news involve the use of facsimiles to contacts in Lebanon and reading of journals and newspapers on the internet with as many as 50 Arabic publications accessible. For example, during the war, the head of the Melbourne branch of a political party would telex or fax the head office of his organization and received detailed information about developments. Likewise, editors and journalists have their sources of information, which they contact directly by fax or email as well as gaining access to journals and papers. Another common form of communication is the sending of videos of weddings, baptisms and other special family events. This explains the ubiquitous video photographers at key family events.

Technology has exerted a major impact on contemporary Lebanese community life. Cable television, videotapes, cheaper long distance calls, have all ensured the continuing contact with Lebanese culture and society denied to earlier waves of migrants. When this is coupled with the large number of short-term visits to Lebanon, it is apparent that third wave immigrants are maintaining closer contact with their families and former homeland than earlier groups. It is to these visits that we now turn.

Return Visits to Lebanon in the 1990s

The period following the Civil War in Lebanon has seen a major movement of Lebanon-born and their families back to Lebanon. There have been relatively few permanent departures with, for example, no more than 155 in 1991/92, 126 in 1992/93 and 183 in 1993/94. However, as indicated in Table 1, the short-term departures (less than 12 months) of Lebanese-born living in Australia steadily rose from a low of 5,666 in 1991/92 to a high of 18,755 in 1998-99. It is important to note that these figures include multiple visits to Lebanon by a single person and would therefore exceed the number of Lebanese-born Australian residents actually returning for short-term visits. To these figures must be added second generation Australian-born of Lebanese descent who are also returning to Lebanon. While numbers for the latter group are not readily available, it is likely that the inclusion of this group would at least double the number of short-term departures of Lebanese-born and their descendants. The proliferation of Lebanese and other Middle Eastern travel agents bears witness to the size and significance of return visits to Lebanon.

As can be seen from Table 2 the purposes stated by Lebanese residents for short-term visits to Lebanon are dominated by the categories of ‘visiting friends/relatives’ and ‘holiday’. ‘Visiting friends/relatives’ is, in fact, predominantly visiting family and covers a number of activities such as attending family weddings, becoming engaged or married, baptising a child and visiting the migrants’ ageing parents. In almost all cases family visiting is accompanied by activities such as visiting parts of Lebanon with family and friends. Despite the fact that Lebanon is a small country, many people emigrated without having seen much of their country and return visits invariably include visiting the tourist sites of their homeland. In comparison, short-term visits for business are much less common.

Australian-Lebanese in Melbourne

In order to examine more closely return visits to Lebanon, interviews were conducted with 19 Lebanese-born residents of Melbourne. Interviewees covered both second and third wave migrants and included nine males and ten females, thirteen of whom were married and six single. Their ages ranged from 18 years to 75 years. Ten members of the group had attended secondary level and the other nine had tertiary qualifications from either Lebanon or Australia. Fourteen were Christians and five were Muslims. All were Australian citizens and they lived in suburbs covering the metropolitan area of Melbourne. This research is not based on a representative sample because of the voluntary nature of sample recruitment. However, the inclusion of a diverse sample in terms of age, gender, length of time in Australia and religious affiliation does provide a representative spectrum of the experiences and views of Lebanese-born Australians.

Table 3 indicates the number of times respondents had visited Lebanon. This small group of nineteen Lebanese-born had made a total of 63 visits between them, indicating significant mobility. However, the group did include a travel agent, who had travelled to Lebanon at least 20 times. Multiple visits were more likely to have been undertaken by older, second wave immigrants than younger, more recent arrivals who made fewer visits per person. These multiple visits testify to a strong desire to maintain links with their former homeland.

The great majority of these visits were undertaken either before or after the civil war in Lebanon, with no more than 12 visits occurring during the period 1976 to 1990. In a sad commentary on communication problems, one young man decided to return to Lebanon to marry in 1976. His father wrote to him warning him not to come but the letter did not arrive in time. He arrived in Lebanon after the war had started, could hardly see his family and friends (‘they were running here and there’) and of course he did not marry. This experience caused him to declare that ‘I would not go back to Lebanon all my life.’ Another respondent visited Lebanon in 1972 and not again until 1992. All she wanted after that 20 year break was ‘to stay with my family…I couldn’t get enough of them.’ During the last twenty years one of her parents had died, a brother-in law had been killed and she was not able to recognize her nephews and nieces whom she last saw as small children.

The first visits to Lebanon by second wave young migrant men were invariably alone and often to marry. But the great majority of return visits were by family groups of all sorts. Sometimes these were complete families and sometimes one parent would accompany one or more children while the other parent stayed to look after business in Melbourne. With only one exception all respondents stayed with relatives such as parents, grandparents, brothers or sisters and, in some cases, in a home belonging to the family. Staying with relatives involved the visitor from Australia taking gifts to reciprocate the hospitality offered and to demonstrate highly valued migrant success.

Family Reunion

The purpose of most visits was to reunite with family and introduce new family members:
- To see my parents before they died.
- I took my son to introduce him to his relations and where his father was born.
- To have a holiday with my wife to show her Lebanon and her family.
- To see family and what happened to the country (after the war).
The frequency of these family visits is directly related to the restrictions imposed by the Australian Government on family reunion migration from the mid-1990s.

The visits to Lebanon of a second wave migrant, who had been in Australia for over forty years, reveal the different purposes of visits at different stages in a person’s life. After living in Australia for four years, his first visit in 1969 was to spend time with his parents and to marry. Three years later he returned to baptize his first child and to bring out his parents to Australia. In 1978 he took his wife and three children to visit the other grandparents. The main purpose of his 1984 visit was political: to engage in fact-finding and to support a particular political party. He also considered, but did not purchase, an investment during this visit. In 1995 he visited family briefly but spent most time touring Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt with his eldest son. A year later, in 1996, he took his two sons and daughter to again visit family and also to show them Lebanon.

The desire to visit Lebanon and show children the sights of their homeland proved to be a common theme as so many migrants themselves had left Lebanon without seeing the country. There was much joy, especially during the first return visits. A respondent from a village in south Lebanon declares: ‘my heart was dancing. I was born in this country and I do love it from my heart’.

On the other hand, a young woman, who was wounded as a child during the war, had very mixed feelings about family and country during her five day return visit:
When I first arrived I was scared…I didn’t know whether I would enjoy it. I did like the country but I didn’t want to meet my relations…I didn’t want family members to plan my agenda… I wanted to breathe the air… I didn’t want to be cramped…I felt I had to feel it (Lebanon) like a bird flying. She also makes clear that the wounds she experienced were more than physical:
Lebanon did nothing for me. I cannot deny where I came from …(but) as a child being forced to leave the country I don’t think was fair. Someone has a big responsibility …children don’t forget pain…why should I invest in a country that tried to hurt me? That tried to deny my future?

This young woman identified another motivation for return visits of those who were forced to leave hurriedly because of the war: ‘we always wanted to know what had happened because we left everything behind…had people renting the furniture and apartments.’

Another dimension of family contacts were reunions in Lebanon of family members from around the world. One occasion was the fiftieth anniversary of the grandparents of a young Lebanese-born Australian, which was attended by family members from Melbourne, San Francisco, New York, Toronto and Saudi Arabia. Another respondent reported that every second year she has a reunion in Lebanon with her sisters who come from Zahle in Lebanon, Damascus in Syria, Sao Paulo in Brazil and Miami in the United States of America. These global Lebanese families are able to keep in touch through modern communications media and, more importantly, to meet each other on a regular basis in Lebanon. This contrasts with the long-term or permanent separations experienced by first wave families spread around the world.

In an echo of first wave immigrants’ dream of returning to Lebanon to live, so too did some second wave immigrants consider returning permanently or, at least, building a home there. Indeed, some visits were undertaken ‘to gauge the possibility of returning permanently…to have a future plan to return to Lebanon.’ Another respondent returned with her whole family, placed the children in schools with the intention of selling up in Australia and returning to Lebanon. However, conditions in Lebanon just before the war prevented this from happening. Yet another pattern is to send part of a family, perhaps a single child, back to Lebanon to be cared for by a grandmother while the parents in Australia both work. Testimonies about returning to Lebanon reveal not so much a definite decision to return but an unwillingness to give up the possibility that one day they might return. It is as if to maintain this possibility was to retain one last link with their former homeland and the possibility of resuming past lives.

Return visits also invariably raise the issue of family property, which had been left behind in migration. In some cases family members who had migrated lost their contact with family properties, which were eventually taken over, with or without compensation, by family members who had stayed in Lebanon. This has been the cause of some conflict between families in Lebanon and Australia. In other instances, emigrants would return to Lebanon, build houses and, after a time, return to Australia leaving their properties to be cared for and used by other family members. In cases where Lebanese in Australia had tenants in their properties in Lebanon, it became difficult to evict them and the properties over time became the de facto property of the tenants. On the other hand, there are cases where families in Lebanon and Australia cooperate to share the profits of investment properties. Different attitudes to domestic property in Lebanon and Australia lie behind conflicts over property. In Lebanon, family homes tend to be handed down through the generations and are inextricably bound up with the extended family, whereas in Australia a more functional attitude to property exists where original family homes are sold and the second generation members typically establish their own homes.

The timing of visits was also crucial in determining the activities and the attitudes of returning migrants. The return visit of a young Australian Lebanese woman on her honeymoon in 1975 provided an example. Although she felt that ‘Lebanon was still at its height and still prosperous,’ she vividly recalled one event:
I organized a school reunion …what struck me at that meeting was the political tension…they were young people but the discussion was tense and they were taking things very seriously. There were three or four different political inclinations.

This respondent compared her relations with her contemporaries in 1975 and on a second return visit in 1992:
During my first visit I felt that I had changed a lot and I had grown to become an old woman because of the migration experience…I felt that they were still young, carefree girls going out and having fun. In 1992 I felt that they were ahead of me and we had something in common (as) they too have suffered.

This suffering of the Lebanese was also commented on during a return visit by a community leader, who spent time in Cyprus helping Lebanese ‘refugees’ to come to Australia. As he said at the time: ‘I never smiled in Lebanon. When I came back to Australia the picture never erased from my memory and is still there.’

Although not a major purpose of most return visits, people active in religious and political organizations in Australia made appropriate contacts and engaged in these activities in Lebanon. In some few cases these were the main purpose of their visits. A young man described his political activities during his three visits in 1995, 1997 and 2000:
In my first visit I did not do much …I was just trying to understand. In 1997 I had lots of meetings with prominent opposition people and student groups and in my third visit I attended meetings, talked to opposition groups and became involved in peaceful demonstrations for the release of political prisoners. I was never scared, had no threats and was never arrested.

Impact of Visits on Attitudes and Feelings about Lebanon

The great majority of respondents felt that their visits had changed their feelings about Lebanon. On the other hand, two claimed that visiting there did not affect them one way or the other: ‘I love to be in both places.’

The Australian-Lebanese revealed a range of attitudes and feelings towards the country in which they were born. Second wave immigrants, after many years in Australia, expressed generally positive feelings about Lebanon:
-You’re born in the country…still have a feeling for it and still have family there. After 46 years in Australia I am still close to my family (in Lebanon) and still close to the village. I am proud of Lebanon as a nation and get upset at what happens.
-For me, I never lost my passion for Lebanon…a major influence on my life is there…I don’t think going back ever changed that. I’ve remained positive.
-Visits cemented my roots and renewed my feelings.

However, it was a young third wave teenager who had visited Lebanon twice with her parents and who had enjoyed good social times with cousins and friends (including receiving several proposals), who expressed the most positive valuations about Lebanon:
I used to like Lebanon before I went. But when I went there, it changed me a lot. There people there are different, so down-to-earth, so friendly and here you can’t trust anyone…social life there is better.

A third wave immigrant, who fled Lebanon because of the war, described the intense emotion of homecoming on her first return visit in 1986-87:
Although there was still fighting, it was like going to heaven…we were so excited so happy that we were able to see it…we cried a lot when we arrived at Beirut International Airport, we got emotional, we felt like we went home. I wouldn’t believe I was in Lebanon…this is where I belong.
However, the same respondent was less enthusiastic about Lebanon the second time: I felt I belonged there and here.’ During her third visit in 1991, her views had begun to change:
I was planning to go for good. I lived in Beirut but it was a big disappointment. No one was happy. All our relations and friends had worries…lost family members. People over there had different worries and problems to us.
These comments map the changes over time in her feelings towards Lebanon with a change of identification apparent as she now came to see herself as different from the people and their worries in Lebanon.

A number of second wave respondents were profoundly disillusioned with Lebanon, which they now saw through the prism of many years of living in Australia. They claimed they could now see Lebanon in context:
There were a lot of changes in my understanding about Lebanon…before I didn’t know the differences between Lebanon and Australia. In Australia there is a social security system, law and order and no big man/small man. Why don’t they do this in Lebanon? You could see the bad things in Lebanon, could feel corruption in government.
Another focused on the economic deterioration of the country:
Lebanon used to be called the Switzerland of the East, the bridge between east and west. Lebanon now owes $34 billion and there is no work. People are now in more need than during the war.
A second wave respondent identified what she saw as a change in peoples’ values due to the war and the differences that were now apparent between her and them:
My last visit in 1995 disappointed me. Everything had changed. Peoples’ values and mentality had changed. War has affected the value of being alive. People don’t feel things much after the war. Their actions now are less charitable—they think we are not practical.
Other respondents who compared the present Lebanese with those that they had left at least a generation before echoed these feelings:
-The war changed people …they learned how to take your money.
-People have changed a lot …they are not like the generation we left…we used to be satisfied...the last few times people are becoming greedy.

Some claimed that their feelings for their family in Lebanon were still strong but less so for the village or the country: ‘the village has no attraction if my family is not there.’ Others were outspokenly critical of Lebanon and aspects of Lebanese life. One young woman, who claimed her parents gave her a rosy view of Lebanon, was profoundly disappointed:
I thought I had never met such pretentious people. I hated its treatment of people…45 year old women who had to prostitute themselves for money…break their backs.
A young man, who could be described as a political activist, clamed that ‘the visits strengthened my beliefs and strengthened my stand.’ Coming from Australia he claimed that he could see what was missing in Lebanon: freedom of speech, foreign occupation and human rights.

A common feeling about Lebanon was surprise, even disbelief, at its modernity, especially in terms of its use of communications technology. Others expressed positive feelings about Lebanon’s recovery after the war, especially the new construction: ‘I couldn’t believe Lebanon was nearly normal.’ It is as if these things are to be expected in a country such as Australia but not in the Lebanon, which they left some decades earlier. These comments reflect the common occurrence whereby migrants retain over the years an idealistic picture of their former homeland and experience disillusion when this picture is altered or destroyed during their return visits. Sentiments such as these are based on the common phenomenon of different groups growing apart due to their different experiences of living in Lebanon and Australia. Such differences are likely to be exacerbated when one group has experienced suffering in war.

Impact of Visits on Attitudes and Feelings about Australia

With wealth a foreign land becomes a homeland; and with poverty a homeland becomes a foreign land. Arabic Proverb.

The visits of second wave immigrants seemed to strengthen their feelings of attachment to Australia and to support the sentiments in the Arabic proverb. Their satisfactions derive from the standard of living in Australia, the fact that Australia has given them educational and business opportunities, and a more benign and private social life. Second wave immigrants had spent more of their life in Australia than Lebanon and, importantly, they had children and grandchildren living there. The following quotes reveal something of their feelings for Australia:
-My last visit woke me up towards Australia …the way we are living in Australia …how comfortable, how satisfied…we are not jealous…the way we live in Australia is as good as the best in Lebanon.
-When I came back I thanked God I am going back to Australia…I felt very relaxed.
-Australia is my home. It gave me opportunities. This is home, this country. I always maintain that Australia is paradise on earth…Australia is my country.
-Thank God I was in Australia. I couldn’t wait to get back home…the second time turned me off Lebanon and on to Australia.

These comments reveal that some Australian-Lebanese conceive of Lebanon and Australia as opposites, as extremes from which they had to choose. They contrast with those of a second wave Australian-Lebanese who describes Australia’s contribution to his personal development without his losing interest and involvement in the affairs of his former homeland:
Australia became very quickly very interesting to me. It gave me freedom and a broader outlook on life. I live comfortably here (Australia) but not cut off from there (Lebanon). I suffer with them (the Lebanese) and work towards the dream of an independent Lebanon and I feel satisfaction.

The attitudes and feelings towards Australia of third wave immigrants were more mixed. A young third wave immigrant changed in her valuation of Australia over time. After her first return visit to Lebanon in 1986, she felt disappointed when she came back. Others reported on the emptiness of Australia and lack of a rich social life compared to that in Lebanon:
-On my return to Australia I remember feeling numbness for six months…felt a profound confusion…lack of social life in Australia …no cultural life…people in Lebanon are more talkative …lead a richer life.
-I hated Australia when I returned at the age of eight. I missed my family, Lebanese freedom, so many people around…(I) came here and experienced nothing except parents working.

Issues of Identity

In an attempt to examine some of the complexities of identity, respondents were asked in which situations in everyday life did they feel and behave most Australian and in which situations did they feel and behave most Lebanese. Responses revealed that identity is complex and variable and strongly dependent on context. Most respondents reported a clear division between public and private feelings of identity. They stated that they felt and behaved most Australian at work and most Lebanese at home, church and at ‘huflis.’ With parents and older relatives, people felt and behaved most Lebanese but with their own Australian-born children they were more Australian: ‘when I am around my parents I feel Lebanese …the food, the language…when I am with my daughter we have an Australian family.’ So feeling Lebanese or Australian has less to do with the country they are living in and more to do with the social context in which they move. Australian-Lebanese can feel and behave both Lebanese and Australian in Australia.

Respondents indicated that, in almost all cases, return visits to Lebanon have contributed, in one way or another, to their self-perceived identities. Some respondents felt that visits had strengthened their feelings for, and identification with, Lebanon. Many second wave immigrants were positive about their return visits:
-They deepened my feelings and refreshed my memories.
-I love my village more than you can imagine and I am happy there.
-You can go back to your roots…practise you religious ceremonies.

However these positive valuations were always accompanied by assertions that they were now Australian, that visits to Lebanon had strengthened their Australian identity: ‘I love my country Lebanon (but) I rather to be Australian a million times.’

Third wave immigrants were more ambivalent. They appeared to be more drawn to Lebanon and some of them seriously considered returning permanently but there were problems in doing so:
I would like to go back but would have income problems over there and no social group to belong to. I would like to bring up my family there but people take advantage of you. If only Lebanese-Australians would return in a group, then I would be happy.
This respondent felt that the only way he would be happy would be to take a part of Australia back to Lebanon with him. A well-educated third wave Australian-Lebanese saw life in Lebanon and Australia offering him a smorgasbord of values and principles to live by. He valued his visits as a means of keeping abreast of developments in Lebanon: If you don’t visit it’s a dream, a fantasy…when you go back you can see the developments…you develop and Lebanon develops.’ Although he valued Lebanon for his extended family and his religion, the things he admired about Australia were its work culture and greater equality in family life.

Three sisters, who came to Australia as adults in 1984 after their home had been destroyed during the war, spoke about their love for both countries:
-I feel more Lebanese than Australian as I didn’t come as a child.
-I always have mixed feelings. I have two loves: Lebanon and Australia. I miss Lebanon and Australia.
-I’m glad I was born in Lebanon. Lebanon is more interesting than Australia.
-People find me more interesting and richer because of my cultural background. We feel we are cosmopolitan.

They felt that return visits were of great benefit to them: ‘Our visits are emotionally and psychologically essential…it’s like going back to part of yourself and gives me a sense of continuity.’ On the other hand, they were conscious of the need to settle down and Australia had already become the place where they would settle. However, this decision has not been made without some pain:
-Visits disturb me emotionally…I’m not just a tourist in Lebanon. I don’t like to see what I’m missing out on—life in Lebanon.
-I’m grateful to Australia. It’s possible to live with two identities…you don’t have to have conflict (but) can choose, can select your own traditions.
-As people we have experienced more, we can combine the cultures…migration to Australia has enhanced us as individuals, strengthens our personalities and enable us to select what is best from Lebanon and Australia.


Maintaining Contacts and Return visits

The means by which Lebanese migrants maintained contact with family in Lebanon and other countries in the diaspora have changed over time. First wave settlers used letters and photographs to maintain family contacts, send remittances back home and find suitable Lebanese marriage partners. Along with word of mouth, letters were also used to locate and maintain contact with compatriots as a basis for the establishment of Australian-Lebanese communities. Limited communication with their former homeland and rare return visits meant that these first wave Australian- Lebanese communities developed in comparative isolation within Anglo-Celtic Australia, which led, over time, to their rapid and complete assimilation.

Second wave immigrants were a transitional group who, early in their settlement, employed similar means of communication to those of first wave settlers. However, by the 1970s, Arabic media began to appear and return visits take place so that contact with family and information about Lebanon were now more readily available. The revolution in communications technology by the 1990s meant that this same group now had access to a range of media, which provided direct and immediate communication to their family as well as current information about Lebanon.

Third wave immigrants, with their urgent need to keep in touch with family and developments in Lebanon, had an extensive range of media with which to communicate speedily and to obtain ‘real time’ news and entertainment from Lebanon. However, the Civil War disrupted normal means of communication so that, for a period of time, alternatives had to be employed such as sending letters with those returning to Lebanon or communicating through other locations in the Middle East. The difference between the experiences of first and third wave migrants lies in the speed, immediacy, versatility and cost of communications, which has collapsed distance and brought the ‘here’ and ‘there’ so much closer.

Return visits after the Civil War grew exponentially, with multiple visits common. The major purposes were introductions of family members and family reunions, including reunions of ‘global’ families, as well as holidays in Lebanon. A latent function of return visits was the transfer of cultures across both country of adoption and country of origin. While most valuations of Lebanon were positive, some visits were affected by timing, for example, during the civil war and by conflicts over family property. A comparison of second and third wave migrants reveals changes over time in attitudes and feelings towards Lebanon. Second wave immigrants present a mixture of positive valuations and criticism of Lebanon which indicate that they are now seeing their former homeland from the perspective of their adopted country. Thus they offer criticisms of corruption in government, human rights and peoples’ values. In doing so, they revealed their assimilation into the Australian way of life and the lag between their perceptions of the Lebanon they left and the Lebanon they visited. Third wave immigrants were, in general, more ambivalent, expressing positive feelings about life in Lebanon but a growing awareness that Australia was becoming, or had become, their home.

Most second wave immigrants felt strongly that the visits had strengthened their attachment to Australia. On the other hand, third wave migrants were more ambivalent, being more willing to criticise elements of their life in Australia and compare some aspects unfavourably with life in Lebanon. This applied particularly to the emptiness of Australian social life compared to the richness of that in Lebanon. However, most recognised that their futures lay in their adopted country.

Issues of Identity

The issue of immigrant identity is complex and multifaceted as outlined in the schema in Figure 1. This illustrates that immigrant identity can be influenced by both individual and group factors; that it is useful to conceive of the identities of immigrants prior to migration and post migration; and that there is a set of processes associated with identity formation, maintenance and change. A discussion of selected aspects of this schema follows.

A strong marker of identity is attachment to one’s former homeland, which can take a number of forms and vary in strength over time and across groups. For example, some Australian-Lebanese may identify with the people, the customs, the culture of their former homelands but at the same time reject the government, perhaps its bureaucracy, corruption, wars with neighbours, among others. In other cases, their strongest attachment may be for their village or region of birth, rather than for the country as a whole. The growth of village organizations among Australian-Lebanese communities lends support to this proposition.

Another factor influencing the identity of Australian-Lebanese is religious affiliation. Lebanese immigrants have been active in establishing places of worship that, at the same time, have become centres for their social and cultural life. Two Eastern Rite Catholic Churches (the Maronite and Melkite) owe their existence in Australia directly to Lebanese migration. Lebanese immigrants have established Antiochian Orthodox Churches throughout Australia. They have also provided the largest component of Islam in Australia, resulting in the building of mosques and the formation of Islamic societies and schools. In some cases, both Christian and Muslim, the religious affiliations of Australian-Lebanese override national and regional boundaries and become the primary marker of their identity.

The Arabic language is a highly influential factor in fixing identity for Australian-Lebanese. As such, it is both a marker and transmitter of cultural identity that helps bind communities together. Speaking Arabic at home, praying in Arabic and attending Arabic classes are means of preserving the language and elements of their former identity. Arabic is used at home by 177,641 Australian residents (1996 census) making it the fourth most widely spoken community language in Australia. The largest birthplace of Arabic speakers are Australia (41.9 per cent) and Lebanon (35.7 per cent). Even where immigrants speak a common mother tongue such as Arabic, their speech may be specific to a locality and may have a particular dialect, accent, idiom, and vocabulary, which are also markers of a more specific identity.

Another powerful force that acts to fix identity is conflict. Over the years, Lebanon has experienced many forms of conflict such as wars, political struggles, religious conflicts, family feuds, discriminatory policies and practices or some combination of these. Conflict disallows the blurring of boundaries and also acts to keep the issue of identity in the foreground of the individual’s consciousness. It categorizes people, and ensures that they think of themselves and others in terms of these categories. On the other hand, when immigrants are away from the conflict situation, some react by resisting labeling in terms of these categories. Thus while some Lebanese immigrants may describe themselves in terms of religious, political or regional groupings, others may deliberately refuse to categorize themselves in these ways.

In terms of the identities of immigrants post migration, we see that most second wave immigrants have an ‘achieved identity’ (that is, changed to a new identity), summarized by their adoption of the term ‘Australian-Lebanese,’ which recognizes the primacy of their attachment to Australia. On the other hand, we see that most third wave immigrants are ‘in transition’ (moving from an old to a new identity), invariably involving a degree of emotional strain as they make the change. Some highly educated immigrants appeared to voluntarily assume different identities dependent on context and yet integrate these within their own personalities. These ‘Scarlet Pimpernels’ refuse to categorize themselves in simple terms but rather see that they can avail themselves of a ‘smorgasbord’ of values and experiences derived from living in both countries.

The schema suggests a ‘transnational’ identity based on educational or occupational grouping. While this is so, it also possible to conceive of any immigrants, with links to their homeland or other diaspora countries, in terms of both ‘local’ and ‘transnational’ identities. Many migrants from Lebanon, across the three waves, belonged to ‘global’ or ‘transnational’ families, villages, religions or political groupings on the grounds that they have members spread across the world. In describing the internationalization of Lebanese villages, Humphrey notes that ‘the village connected people to the world unmediated by the state or broader social institutions’ (1998, p.40).

It is suggested here that a number of definable processes take place as immigrants’ identities change from before migration to after migration. The evidence of this study suggests that, for most respondents, identity change tended to be unconscious, involuntary and gradual. It typically takes place over the long-term and is influenced by others through the socialization process. However, for a small and well-educated group, identity change processes tended to be more conscious, voluntary, short-term and influenced by self; ‘it’s like a smorgasbord (which) offers values and principles…you can adopt, select and develop.’

Finally, the schema suggests that a key factor in identity change processes is contact with one’s country of origin. This paper has analyzed immigrants’ contacts with Lebanon, particularly through return visits, and shown their significance in the processes of identity change for Australian- Lebanese.


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Batrouney A. and Batrouney T. (1985) The Lebanese in Australia, Melbourne, AE Press.

Batrouney, T. (2001) ‘Lebanese Community Life in Melbourne’ in (Ed.) Jupp, J. The Australian People. (forthcoming).

Batrouney, T. (1992)‘The Lebanese in Australia’ in ed. Hourani, A. and Shehadie, N. The Lebanese in the World: A Century of Migration. Centre for Lebanese Studies and I. B. Tauris, London.

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Humphrey, M. (1998) ISLAM, Multiculturalism and Transnationalism. From the Lebanese Diaspora. Centre for Lebanese Studies and I. B. Tauris, London.

Issawi, C. ‘The historical Background of Lebanese Emigration: 1800-1914’ in ed. Hourani, A. and Shehadie, N. The Lebanese in the World: A Century of Migration. Centre for Lebanese Studies and I. B. Tauris, London.

Jordans, A. (1995) Redefining Australians: Immigration, Citizenship and National Identity. Sydney, Hale and Iremonger Pty Ltd.

McKay, J. (1989) Phoenician Farewell: Three Generations of Lebanese Christians in Australia, Ashwood House, Melbourne, 1989.

McKay, J. and Batrouney, T.(2001) ‘Lebanese Immigration until the 1990s in (Ed.) Jupp, J. The Australian People. (forthcoming).

Nabti, P. ‘Emigration from a Lebanese Village: A Case Study of Bishmizzine’ in ed. Hourani, A. and Shehadie, N. The Lebanese in the World: A Century of Migration. Centre for Lebanese Studies and I. B. Tauris, London.

Shboul, A. (1985) “Arabic-speaking Immigrants In Australia: Cultural Background, Image, Self-Image and Reality” in The Arabic Community Realities and Challenges: Seminar Proceedings NSW Arabic Welfare Inter-Agency.

Dr Trevor Batrouney
Adjunct Professor
RMIT University
Melbourne Australia

10 August 2001


For more information on the Lebanese in Victoria try the websites of the Australian Lebanese Historical Society and the Victorian Multicultural Commission on the following addresses:

Click Here To Link To alhsv
Click Here To Link To multicultural