SOUTHFIELD — A vast, green vista, dotted with skyscrapers and notable landmarks, unfolds below the large windows of a contemporary office – a landscape reminiscent of millions’ homeland of Lebanon.
Bilal Kabalan, consul general of Lebanon, looks through binoculars from his office and points out the several observable towns where many Lebanese Americans live.
Kabalan contemplated the Arab American evolution from within the spacious consulate, a piece of Lebanese territory in Southfield.
The Consulate General of Lebanon in Detroit, which serves Lebanese Americans in 14 states, had just moved from a smaller space in Detroit to better accommodate the needs of the growing community in the Midwest. However, Kabalan himself is set to soon return to Lebanon. A new consul general will soon take his place in Metro Detroit.
His term, which began in 2012, should have lasted two years, but he said an almost three-year vacancy in the Lebanese presidency required he remain beyond his scheduled 2014 end date to lead the 11-member team. The president’s approval is necessary for changes to a diplomatic post; there was no president to assign Kabalan’s replacement.
During Kabalan’s five-year tenure, the consulate grew out of its 2,000-square foot space in Detroit’s New Center, as the Lebanese American population flourished and spread far and wide across the state.
The new offices in Southfield are in a more strategic location, with access to major roads and in a building with free parking. It also sits among a plethora of Fortune 500 companies.
The prime location and good company are important for the maintenance of a polished Lebanese diplomatic image, Kabalan said. An increase in demands from those who seek the consulate’s services, including the renewal or issuing of Lebanese passports and the handling of property, birth or death certificates, has forced the move and the hiring of more staff. But the increased demands and unfamiliarity with proper procedures still has the consulate asking for cooperation and patience from Lebanese Americans, said Jinane Nicolas, who handles civil matters and paperwork like the filing of marriage and divorce records. “The most important thing is to have ready a form of Lebanese identification for any matter involving civil records in Lebanon,” she said.
Yet, Kabalan explained that the consulate’s main roles are more than meets the eye.
He said its purpose is to strengthen the bilateral relationships between the U.S. and Lebanon, on everything beside politics, complementing the Lebanese embassy in Washington. While having a bird’s eye view and feeling the pulse of the Lebanese American community, the consulate is there to protect Lebanese citizens, ensure opportunities and more broadly negotiate with U.S. authorities or entities in the Midwest on issues related to the Lebanese government.
“We are mandated to represent all the departments and authorities in Lebanon,” Kabalan said, adding that the consulate seeks to enhance trade, occasionally puts U.S. and Lebanese entrepreneurs in touch with each other to spark new business and joint enterprise opportunities.
He also helps people find jobs when he can and works closely with U.S. and Lebanese universities to foster education programs.
Encouraging Lebanese citizenship
Another major initiative of the Lebanese government is to encourage those individuals who can document that their grandparents were citizens of Lebanon to register for Lebanese citizenship and vote in their homeland’s elections, as facilitated through the consulate.
Kabalan urged expatriates to call or visit the consulate’s website, which has information about the process and benefits of becoming a Lebanese citizen.
However, he said local Lebanese Americans regretfully do not turn out or register in sufficient numbers to qualify for polling booths here – an indication of expatriates’ growing disinterest in remaining connected to Lebanon.
Kabalan said many Lebanese Americans did not register for the last election because most had little knowledge about the candidates’ political platforms and they did not know how to vote. At the same time, he acknowledged that some political powers in Lebanon urged their constituents to wait on voting until the muddled political landscape in Lebanon clears up.
Most telling is that Lebanese Americans have lost trust in Lebanese politics, coupled with a three-year vacancy in the presidency and the infamous garbage crisis that plagued the country, Kabalan said.
But if it is change in government that people want, registering and voting in unified and large numbers will birth a voice for Arab Americans, he added. Even if a Lebanese citizenship is symbolic, Kabalan said exiled Lebanese could strengthen the nation’s economy, ties to the culture and help defend Lebanon on the international stage.
Lebanese Americans’ impact
The community’s significance in the Midwest region cannot be ignored.
The consul general explained that the most recent wave of Lebanese immigrants in the 1970s invigorated a culture and political platform for Lebanese politics and entrepreneurship within about a decade. Most Lebanese Americans reside in Michigan Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota and Missouri, with 94,000 of them living in Metro Detroit, he said.
Those figures reflect U.S. Census data, but Kabalan said the consulate also acknowledges different figures from other sources. The Arab American Institute, for example, report almost 4 million people of Arab origin living in the U.S. However, Kabalan said that number is “very optimistic.”
The consulate relies mostly on the Census for numbers, but Kabalan pointed to a flaw in counting Arabs in the country and criticized the introduction of a proposed Middle East and North Africa (MENA) minority classification that could make it onto the upcoming 2020 Census.
Kabalan said as the Census classifies individuals based on ethnicity, not political definitions, choosing to be identified as “Middle Eastern” would be antithetical to Arab Americans.
He explained that the term Middle East is a political definition coined by a British journalist, since the British Empire right after WWI repartitioned the international balance of powers and divided countries based on their proximity to Britain.
The Middle East, prior to that, started from the Fertile Crescent up to Pakistan, and Arabs would not fall into that category.
He added that a Middle Eastern identification would include the “Zionist entity occupying Palestine since 1948” in the same definition.
But what Arabs have in common is their language, and many nationals fall within that classification, he said. Kabalan said it would be best for Arab Americans to “look at themselves as Americans” and for “the Arab and Lebanese American community to be treated as the mainstream American.”
“When they succeed as full-fledged Americans, they will bring a greater benefit to the bilateral relations,” he said. “They will prove themselves much more.”
As Kabalan readies the office for a new administration, he provided a few words of advice to his replacement.
He said the community he oversees yearns for a leader who is transparent and is more focused on the spirit than the letter of the law.
“We don’t want to be bureaucratic machines,” he said. “Service is not only based on the essence of the law, but is sometimes above the law. You have to look at the consuls’ service with humanity.”