Dunedin Multi-Ethnic Council – Celebrating Diversity

We are Ōtepoti Dunedin

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Lebanese Society Cedars of Lebanon Club Inc

Who are we:

Lebanon is a small country on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea comprised of a string of seaboard towns against a thickly wooded and mountainous hinterland. Many different people and historic events have contributed to the history of the current land. There is a limestone rock north of the capital city, Beirut, which carries nineteen inscriptions in eight languages, from Egyptian, Assyrian and Babylonian, through Greek and Latin to French, English and Arabic, commemorating military feats from the 13th Century BC to 1943.

Into this land “rich in time but poor in space” have been compressed, it’s historian Philip Hitti believes, more historical events of great significance than any other land of comparable size. The result is a distinctive culture in which elements of east and west blend gracefully.

Most of the Dunedin Lebanese immigrants come from a mountain village in the north of Lebanon, known as Becharre while a smaller number came from the Tripoli region.

The Muslim rulers who dominated Lebanon from the 7th century concentrated their attention on the coastal cities leaving the mountainous inhabitants very much to their own devices. Safe in their mountain fortress, the people of Becharre cultivated all the available land and engaged in trade. They were influenced by the Phoenicians who occupied the region at the beginning of recorded history and exported cedar wood to Egypt almost 3000 years before Christ. Their tradition of trade and commerce was maintained as one century gave way to another.

To the ancient tradition of trade, the people of Lebanon have an even stronger tradition of adherence to Christianity. However, the Christians were not left to enjoy their faith in peace. Between the 16th and 18th centuries the Muslim countries and the sect known as the Druze expanded greatly and by the mid-19th century large numbers found their way to Lebanon and the mountainous region was left a beleaguered “Christian island in a sea of Islam”, resulting in wars between Christians and Druze in 1841, 1845 and 1860. During the final war there was a wholesale slaughter of Christians in a Druze district and it was estimated that twelve thousand people were slaughtered over a period of three months. In later years, a migrant to New Zealand noted that life was unbearable under Turkish domination and Christians were virtually driven into other lands.

The massacres shocked Europe and finally through the intervention of France a new constitution was established which gave greater security to Christian Lebanese. As a result, the population of the mountainous region began to rise sharply; an increase which together with the influx of people into lowland areas, caused unemployment in towns and intolerable pressure on land resources. The country simply could not provide a living for the younger generation.

At the same time, the opportunities of the New World gleamed golden. In the late 19th century, a wave of emigration from Lebanon surged first to the Nile valley, then North and South America, to Africa and Central America and finally Australia and New Zealand. Although they were influenced by the persecution at home, migrants were not leaving simple to escape it. They were not refugees, but aspiring migrants, eager to better themselves, with a positive attitude and a willingness to try anything including temporary hardship. A small but distinctive group eventually found their way to Dunedin, New Zealand.

The early Lebanese migrants faced many challenges. Most were relatively uneducated and were unprepared for integration into a very different culture from that which they had left behind.

They came from a land of “three hundred sunny days” and a gloriously Mediterranean climate. The weather in Dunedin was at the other end of the spectrum. The cuisine of their homeland was a blend of east and west, but it was completely different to the cuisine of New Zealand at that time. And of course, there was the problem of language and the inability of the migrants to communicate with the local population. History recalls many amusing and sometimes tragic instances of words and phrases being mispronounced and misunderstood. In addition their resources were meagre, and one can readily understand why some were heard to mutter “Aish jebnie ah hull bled?” which means “What brought me to this country?”.

Soon they adapted to the climate. Ancient recipes were modified and adapted to utilise local produce. In broken English they learned how to express themselves. They tenaciously sought and found modest accommodation in a central city area bounded by what was Walker Street (later Carroll Street), Stafford Street and Princess Street. It was shared with Chinese miners who had come to the city after failing to find their fortunes in gold fields of Central Otago. The area was dubbed by locals – “the Devils Half Acre”.

They made old houses into homes and relying upon their cultural belief in family, faith and fidelity they eventually adapted to the new world. The ability to express their Christianity and the ability to worship saw them join the congregation at St Joseph’s Cathedral. They made certain that their children appreciated the value of education. The group lived in one area as one large family; they were one in times of joy and supported each other in times of sadness and difficulty.

Many of the early settlers made a living by hawking which in those days, involved selling goods door to door; first on foot, later with a horse and cart and finally with a specially built motor vehicle. Some were able to start small businesses while most simply chose to take up employment in the city.

Probably one of the major challenges was racial prejudice. Apart from the Chinese, practically all those who found their way to New Zealand were of European origin and some locals resented these people who came from a different cultural background.

What Dunedin means to us:

Over the years the Lebanese community of Dunedin earned respect and recognition as citizens of the city. Hundreds have obtained degrees from Otago University and elsewhere. Many have established small and larger businesses as well as professional practices. A number have been awarded Royal Honours for services to the wider community and some have served as elected representatives in local government. The community has been completely integrated and the city of Dunedin is the hometown they know and love.