TOPICS : Hate the US, and head for it

The growing rift between the US and Iran has spread also to Lebanese soil, with Shia youngsters frequently seen burning US flags. But ironically, for many of Hezbollah’s Shia constituency, the US is home. Lebanese have been flocking to the US since the first emigrant left for Ellis Island in 1849. Looking for better work opportunities and an escape from war, it has been a journey thousands and thousands of Lebanese have made over the past 150 years. Abbas, a young realtor in his thirties originally from Bint Jbeil, is visiting from California. Sipping on a bottle of Bacardi Breezer while lounging poolside at the posh Mövenpick Hotel, he expresses in broken Arabic his admiration for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Shia southerners bore the brunt of Israel’s wrath, especially in Qana village, where two forceful Israeli strikes in 1996 — during the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ conflict with Hezbollah — and the 2006 war led to the cumulative death of some 130 people, mostly children. The 2006 war also led to the death of about 1,200 people, and the displacement of at least a million people from the south.

Rana, a young Shia mother of two who lives in Washington, explains that the stance of most southern Lebanese against the US results from the strategic mistakes the country has made in the region. “When youngsters burn the American flag, they express their hatred of America’s support of Israel, not of the country itself,” she says. According to Nasser Beydoun, chairman of the Arab-American Chamber of Commerce quoted in the Arab American news report of Aug. 1, 2006, some 10,000 Detroit residents have direct ties with the southern town of Bint Jbeil, which was the scene of violent combat in 2006 between Israelis and Hezbollah.

Besides hosting a large Lebanese southern community concentrated around Michigan and spread all over the US, the country has in recent years spent $230 million in humanitarian and reconstruction assistance for conflict-affected persons in Lebanon. The financial assistance has benefited more than two million Lebanese in more than 500 villages across 24 of Lebanon’s 26 districts, with some 35 projects directly aiding the south alone, according to USAID.

By working in the US, many US citizens originally from south Lebanon have been able to provide for their families still residing in their home country. Living with his brothers in US, Ahmad supports his extended family in Lebanon. “Although America has certainly made foreign policy mistakes in Lebanon, I still believe that many local factions on both sides of the divide are serving foreign interests and destroying the country in the process,” he says, referring to the ongoing political conflict between the Hezbollah-led opposition and the Western-backed majority in government.

In spite of Hezbollah’s condemnation of the US, and although southerners are quick to voice criticism of US policies in the Middle East, many Lebanese Shias are still likely to jump at the chance to get a visa or green card to the US, and live out the American dream. — IPS