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September 17, 2007 5:37 pm

Struggling for a future in Sierra Leone

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Fleeing poverty in Lebanon a century ago, a shipload of migrants spent an arduous voyage dreaming of America. Realising they had waded ashore in West Africa came as something of a shock.

While the great-grandchildren of the Lebanese who washed up in Sierra Leone recount the legend of their origins with a chuckle, present-day economic collapse and civil war have given them few reasons to smile.

The Lebanese traders who hung on during Sierra Leone’s turbulent 1990s are hoping that a new administration under Ernest Bai Koroma, the newly elected president, will not only revive their fortunes, but seal their 150-year quest to belong.

“This place could be a paradise,” says Hussein Basma, 51, sitting amid stacks of tyres and dangling fan belts in his car spares shop in Freetown, the capital. “We want the next government to manage the country properly.”

Tracing their roots to an exodus caused by a silkworm crisis in the mid-19th century, West Africa’s Lebanese make up a fraction of a worldwide diaspora of roughly 16m, four times the country’s population.

Like their cousins in a network of merchants and diamond dealers stretching from Liberia to Ivory Coast and Congo, the community in Sierra Leone is generally more attuned to politics in the land of their ancestors.

A sticker for Hizbollah, the Shia militant group, stuck on his desk gives a glimpse of Mr Basma’s loyalties, although talk this month has centred on the race to succeed Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, Sierra Leone’s outgoing president.

Lebanese are best known for dominating the country’s diamond trade, but the working-class shopkeepers making up much of the diaspora just want an end to the corruption, blackouts and onerous customs duties that have slowed recovery from the 1991-2002 civil war.

Without an economic revival, the Lebanese community’s decline may be hard to reverse. From perhaps 30,000 in the 1960s, their number fell to roughly 350 during fighting in Freetown in the late 1990s, recovering to 7,000 today.

Bustling trade at a new Chinese shoe shop a few doors down from Mr Basma’s store only underlines the vibrancy of a tiny but growing influx from China, the latest wave of migrants to crash on the West African coast.

But while most Chinese plan to make their money and leave, generations of Lebanese have married locally, adopted the creole language and staked their destinies on their adopted homeland – in spite of their lack of influence over the running of the country.

Like Indian traders who have long dominated commerce in east Africa, Lebanese on the west of the continent have shunned overt involvement in politics. Some people of Lebanese origin, including Mr Basma, voted in Saturday’s poll. But a lack of full citizenship rights, such as eligibility to run for office, even for those born in the country, fuels a sense of discrimination.

“If things stay as they are, I don’t see any future,” Samir Hassanyeh, president of the Lebanese community in Sierra Leone, says. “They have to change these laws. If you’re not made to feel welcome in a country, why would you stay?”

The status of the Lebanese has not been a campaign issue in Sierra Leone, where their relative wealth has stoked a degree of resentment among some poorer people in spite of the jobs they provide in bars, supermarkets and factories.

Reports of Lebanese dealing in “blood diamonds” looted by rebels have done little to improve their image, eclipsing the role the community played in maintaining food imports during the war.

Seeking new horizons, many younger people are leaving for Europe or the US or retracing their great-grandfathers’ footsteps back to Lebanon, in spite of nostalgia for Sierra Leone’s post-independence heyday.

“There were street lights, discos,” Mohamed Bukhdoud, 21, who wandered into the spares shop to visit his relatives, says. “We all hope the country will get better.”

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