Yasmina Hatem

10 Questions for Back to Roots

NOW talks to Gustave Cordahi, the founder of Back to Roots

BTR visits President Michel Suleiman at the Baabda Presidential Palace.
Former Minister Rayya el-Hassan lectures for BTR about the Lebanese economy and financial system.
BTR visits prominent journalist May Chidiac.
BTR participants plant Cedars in Oyoune Al-Simane.
BTR at the Cedars of Lebanon forest.
BTR at Qanat Bakiche.
BTR visits AUB.

NOW: How did you come up with Back to Roots? 


Gustave Cordahi: Having physically left Lebanon to the United States in the late 2000s, I never mentally left. In fact, I always actively look for ways to connect the strong Lebanese diaspora to the motherland. Everywhere I lived (or visited) across North America, I was able to sense an attachment that the Lebanese youth have while still abroad. I thought that a program that would connect people of Lebanese descent with the motherland would fulfill the need of North American youth to reconnect with their roots, allowing them to have a first-hand experience of Lebanon. It would also allow us to offer something to a largely-neglected immigrant body without expecting anything in return. We also want to change the distorted notion that immigrants are simply unconditional sources of funds or votes.


NOW: How did it go from an idea to an actual program?


Cordahi: The dream of Back to Roots (BTR) became a reality when people, both in North America and in Lebanon, fully believed in the idea and in the importance of reconnecting young college students to their Lebanese roots. The program was endorsed by the Lebanese Information Center (LIC) in the United States; and in 2010, the dream turned into a plan that became BTR, which we implemented for the first time during that summer. The first wave of BTR participants gathered in Lebanon for what became a very memorable experience. Since then, we have been enhancing the program year-after-year, and this summer (2013) we had our fourth BTR edition.


NOW: What is the ultimate goal of the program?


Cordahi: We aim to engage young adults from the Lebanese diaspora with Lebanon on a multifaceted level. The program introduces its participants to the cultural, geographical, and historical aspects of their homeland. The participants take part in daily excursions, meetings with influential Lebanese leaders, and captivating lectures with Lebanese scholars. The goal of the Back to Roots Summer Academy is to cultivate a love for Lebanon in young people of Lebanese descent, so that they may become well-informed and passionate ambassadors for the ‘Land of the Cedars’. BTR measures its success on the wisdom, pride, and enthusiasm that each individual participant gains from discovering their Lebanese roots.


NOW: Why is it important for Lebanese immigrants to go back to their roots?


Cordahi: In this day and age, reconnecting with one's roots has become synonymous with richness – it is not a reflection of extremism or closed-mindedness, but rather a celebration of openness and diversity. We may be a relatively small country with a minor influence on the international level, but when we see the major contributions of Lebanese individuals in every arena and in every corner of the globe, we wonder why we cannot leverage those achievements to the advantage of our Lebanon? It is mostly due to the fact that our diaspora becomes largely disconnected from Lebanon. Through our experience in North America, we notice that it may only take the negligence of one generation for a full disconnect with their roots. To care for your motherland, you need to genuinely love it. To love it, you need to know it. To truly know it, you need to experience it first-hand. Only through this route can we hope to have real advocates who serve Lebanon and the Lebanese cause in every position and location worldwide.


NOW: What's the big dream for BTR?


Cordahi: The slogan I devised for Back to Roots is 'Planting Cedar Leaders Around the World'. My big dream is to have BTR become a vehicle that connects the large Lebanese diaspora with the motherland generation-after-generation. Also, to have the BTR experience fuel a love for Lebanon in the hearts of past participants, who hopefully become knowledgeable and enthusiastic advocates for the motherland everywhere they go in the future.

NOW: Can you summarize what's been done so far?


Cordahi: We have so far hosted four editions of BTR, with one occurring every summer since 2010. All were successful, and since the first edition, we started engaging past BTR participants in the actual design and growth of the program. That is how our leadership committee is now largely comprised of BTR alumni. Thus, we are turning BTR from a one-time experience to a continuous relationship with the motherland, and this keeps participants involved and engaged in promoting and caring about Lebanon.


NOW: How do you fund the program?


Cordahi: The expenses of the program in Lebanon (excluding airfare costs) are fully covered through our fundraising efforts in North America. We are lucky to have donors who believe in our mission and who keep supporting us year-after-year. We host several fundraisers across North America throughout the year, and many of the parents of BTR alumni are becoming supporters of the program, especially after they witness the enthusiasm of their children after their memorable BTR experiences. Plus, working with the Lebanese Information Center (LIC), a non-profit research and education Institute, also allows us to receive tax-deductible donations in the United States.


NOW: Are you ever discouraged?


Cordahi: Every beautiful rose comes with thorns. Each year, we face several hurdles, mainly linked to the unstable situation in Lebanon. This summer (and most summers so far), I kept debating with our advisors and coordinators the risks involved in hosting the program given the current situation. However, our whole message is about the promotion of the culture of life in Lebanon, to counterbalance the devastating cultures of death, weapons, darkness, and extremism that are haunting our country. Providing a safe and enjoyable experience to our participants is our top priority, and our faith allows us to overcome the hurdles every year and to go on with the program. This is a delicate challenge, but I am willing to take it up.


NOW: What is your proudest moment so far?


Cordahi: We are always humbled when prominent leaders in the country, including the President of Lebanon, welcome us every year and await our visit. But most of all, it’s watching participants call BTR (and Lebanon) 'a life-changing experience'. That shows us that the effects of the program will be durable and fruitful. Besides, it is always particularly nice to have 2nd and 3rd generation Lebanese discover their roots with us for the first time.


NOW: How do you select people to take part in the program?


Cordahi: We have an online application process: the program is open to all North Americans of Lebanese descent (between 18 and 24 years old of age). In the planning stages of every edition, our leadership committee conducts outreach efforts that go hand-in-hand with our fundraising efforts. In terms of selection, we review and interview applicants, and then we select the participants based on their credentials and on the program's requirements.


You can find out more about BTR by visiting their Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/BacktoRoots.sa


BTR visits President Michel Suleiman at the Baabda Presidential Palace (Source: BTR Lebanon).

"The goal of the Back to Roots Summer Academy is to cultivate a love for Lebanon in young people of Lebanese descent so that they may become well-informed and passionate ambassadors for the ‘Land of the Cedars’."