What happens when the youth of Lebanon’s vibrant diaspora come home?
Founded in 2010, Back to Roots is a non-profit organization based in the U.S. and Lebanon that is dedicated to building ties between the young generation of Lebanon’s widespread diaspora and their beautiful homeland. For 14 jam-packed days every summer, 15 young adults traverse throughout Lebanon, sharing meals with activists and professors, hiking through forests of cedars and dancing on mountaintops, discussing everything from women’s rights and Lebanon’s painful Civil War in detailed lectures. Some of them are coming to Lebanon for the first time, while others have been frequently, but have had their experiences limited to their immediate family.
The Lebanese diaspora is a beautiful beast. Proud, vocal and always ready for impromptu dabkeh sessions, Lebanese emigrants of various generations around the world take immense pride in the vibrant culture of their homeland. But what happens when young adults of Lebanese descent living in the far-flung corners of America and Canada dig a little deeper? What happens when they try to answer lifelong questions about identity, culture and which mountainside restaurant has the best moutabbal? The short answer: quite a lot. The long answer: two weeks with the Back to Roots Summer Academy – an immersion trip to Lebanon, designed specifically for Lebanese youth in the diaspora looking to discover their roots.
These “cedar leaders,” as we affectionately call them, absorb an immense amount of information in the two weeks, and the way in which they look at their identity is truly transformed. Between all the delicious meals and beautiful sights, they’re asking themselves tough questions, like “What does it mean for me to have a Lebanese identity?” and “Is it more than just where my family is from?”
Tala Rizkallah, who took part in Back to Roots’ sixth edition this past summer, said BTR had helped erase what she had perceived as a stigma about being Middle Eastern. ˝Whenever people used to ask me where I am from, I’ve always hesitantly told them that I’m Lebanese for a few reasons, the main one being the lack of education on various cultures in the Middle East,” she says. ˝After completing the Back to Roots program, I am so beyond proud of my culture and I wouldn’t have been able to embrace the country’s richness in such depth and with such amazing people if it wasn’t for BTR.”
”Blessed doesn’t even begin to cover it; I thank BTR for opening my eyes to new experiences and allowing me to plant my roots in a place I will always be proud to call home,” Rizkallah adds.
As for Alex Sahyouni, whose father hails from the northern city of Tripoli, participating in Back to Roots in 2015 meant visiting his father’s native homeland for the very first time.
“BTR was my first chance to experience Lebanon and understand my Lebanese identity on a deeper level,” he says. “My time in Lebanon with BTR changed my life, and cemented my love for the country; it truly made me a passionate ambassador of Lebanon to all I meet.”
So, what happens when these youth go back to the United States and Canada? Many – more than a dozen of our alumni – have decided to volunteer their time to promote and fundraise for BTR to make their experience possible for future generations. Others, like Sasha Ussef (BTR 2013), Anthony Aslou (BTR 2015), and myself (BTR 2010) decide that the best way to continue learning about Lebanon is to live it in our ancestral homeland – through art, volunteering, and journalism respectively. For all of us, Back to Roots embodies the most beautiful parts of Lebanon: a constantly growing, deeply curious and generous family of passionate people.
Back to Roots is completely funded by the generosity of donors in Lebanon and in the Lebanese diaspora around the world. Contributions, are tax-deductible in the United States. A donation to Back to Roots is a donation to the future of Lebanon!, can be easily made through our website.
How to apply?
Candidates complete an online application through Back to Roots’ website and conduct a Skype interview with BTR’s Leadership Committee. Every year, we bring between 14 to 16 Lebanese youths. Last year, we had to choose from 70 applicants – so the process is getting more and more competitive.
Applicants must be:
• Of Lebanese descent
• Aged between 18 & 24
• Enthusiastic & driven
Application process is from the end of January until the end of March every year.