Who Are the Most Successful Immigrants in the World? (Ep. 137)

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(Photo: Damian Bariexca)

(Photo: Damian Bariexca)

This week’s episode was inspired by a conversation that Stephen Dubner had on an airplane. (You can subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript below; it includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) He was on his way to South Africa when fellow passenger Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and Antifragile, told him something remarkable: “If you look at ten or twenty or thirty of the richest countries around the world, among the richest people in those countries is someone from Lebanon.” Of course Taleb would say this, Dubner thought. He is Lebanese. But the idea stuck. And that’s what this week’s episode is about.

How successful is the Lebanese diaspora? And how did they get to be this way?

In the show, Dubner talks to his friend George Atallah, who works for the N.F.L. Players Association in Washington, D.C., and is Lebanese-American. He says his father, Georges Atallah, is pretty much a walking, talking Rolodex of Lebanese who’s-who. Not only does the senior Atallah know each and every person with even a hint of Lebanese ancestry, but he also tries to claim just about any successful person as kin.

GEORGE ATALLAH: I tell you, even athletes, he’ll look at [John Elway’s] name and he’ll say ‘John Elway is Lebanese.’ And I’ll say, ‘What are you talking about?’ And he goes, ‘Yes, Elway. The “Elloway” family. John Elway is Lebanese!’ We grew up with that all the time. He’s just the best when it comes to that stuff. You know, we take a lot of pride in our culture.

We tried, unsuccessfully, by the way, to verify John Elway’s heritage for the episode. We did, however, put Georges Atallah to the test. His knowledge of who in the world is Lebanese, or even part Lebanese (Carlos Slim, heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, Helen Thomas, Charles Elachi from JPL, Salma Hayek, Renault/Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, designer Elie Saab, Shakira, Kinko’s founder Paul Orfalea, even the guy who owns the bridge between Canada and Detroit) is, indeed, remarkable.

Also in the episode, Akram Khater, a historian at North Carolina State University, talks about why Lebanese immigrants have done so well around the world. Khater, director of the Khayrallah Program for Lebanese-American Studies, points out how large the Lebanese diaspora is: while some 4.2 million people live in Lebanon today, there are an estimated 15-20 million people of Lebanese descent living outside of the country. Khater walks us through the reasons for this massive emigration (the crash of the silk market in the 19th century, a brutal civil war in the 20th). Interestingly, Nassim Taleb thinks it is this volatility that has helped make Lebanese emigres so successful:

NASSIM TALEB: The idea is that in a natural setting, anything natural, anything organic, anything biological, up to a point, reacts a lot better to stressors than without…A little bit of adversity results in a little bit more performance in anything.

Now, the story of immigrant success isn’t, of course, unique to the Lebanese. In the episode you’ll also learn which immigrant group has the highest rate of home ownership in the U.S., which immigrant group is the most educated, and which group can claim the most Nobel Prizes. Your next dinner party just got a bit more interesting.

ADDENDUM: In the editing of this story, we omitted key parts of Akram Khater‘s interview — mischaracterizing his statements. Here is the unedited transcript of those passages:

KHATER: There are all sorts of stories that are told by immigrants themselves as well as about immigrants. For example, in the 1880s to 1920 the key story was religious persecution, that the Christians of Lebanon left because they were being persecuted by the Ottoman authorities who controlled the Middle East from the 1400s all the way to World War I. The reality is… Mount Lebanon…was historically… fairly quiet.

KHATER: I don’t know if I should say this, but you know, the truth of the matter is I took the women’s studies course because they told me there were a lot of girls in the class. When I first took it I really had no idea what women’s studies was all about. But I sat there and I remember the first lecture and from the first lecture I was hooked. It had this analytical power to it that explained this quite dramatically to me in many ways. And you know even as a kid in Lebanon, I remember having in the midst of the civil war a conversation with a group of friends of varying ages, all men, young boys to men, and asking a very simple question… why are girls treated different than boys. And the fact of the matter is nobody could explain it. You know, of course they’ll give youth usual tripe, but nobody could explain why, nobody could really give me a satisfactory answer. So I think in the back of my mind I always kind of wanted, had these kind of questions. I don’t want to make it sounds deep or anything, it was just, you know, curiosity, sort of seeing how society treats one gender different than the other and asking the question why and not being satisfied by biological answers or because that the way it is, or because that’s our culture. Those never seemed to me very satisfactory. So… the first lecture in my women’s studies course really was just so amazing. It was literally like when people talk about the stereotypical light bulb going off.


I dont think its just lebanese are the only diaspora that is very successfull. I am a south asian, most of the friends that I have are either engineers, Accountants(CPA), PHDs, Pharmacists or works for some of the really good companies like Amazon, Microsoft,Oracle, E&Y etc. I went to one of the best school back home and most of the students from my school are here in US and are very successfull. I think most of the students or Immigrants who end up in US are cream of crops.


Lebanese are smart and beautiful and we know it. Yalla, that's why we rock.


I have to say "Thank you" to everyone who contributed to this episode, Lebanese and Non-Lebanese, immigrant and non-immigrant. I was truly moved by all the speakers and this leaves me with no choice but to hold on to my Lebanese identity, no matter where in the world I am. The success stories highlighted in this episode not only inspired me but also put me under so much pressure to become a Lebanese hero, not necessarily for fame or money, but for true honor. A big shout-out to my all brothers and sisters.



TO ALL my brothers and sisters*


I am Lebanese and can tell you that the majority of Lebanese, especially the diaspora, are crooks and hence why they made money abroad. :(


You mentioned a on this podcast: something like 2% of the population is Jewish, but 20% of Nobel Laureates are Jewish. This of course, was presented as a positive thing, presumably demonstrating that Jews achieve highly at high rates.

But, when one hears similar statistics cited about income gaps for minorities or incarceration rates for black males (cited, of course, as negative things), one infers from the context that the statistics demonstrate societal or systemic bias against the disadvantaged groups.

Why the difference in inferrence?

M. Strom

I think there is a big difference in how and why a diaspora was formed and how the people were treated once they got to the new country. If we compare blacks and Jews, as the two groups you mention, we see that Jews came to the US mainly in the late 19th/early 20th Century, and the ones who came were for the most part sent by their families as the one who was likely to succeed. jgarbuz below has a good analysis of the development of a merchant class diaspora that was successful in trade.

Blacks, on the other hand, were captured and brought to the New World as slaves. In slavery, their religion was not respected, their families were torn apart, their traditional skill were either unnecessary or forbidden, and they were denied education in the skills needed to get by in the Western world. All this over a period of about 200 years - enough generations to create a culture. So I don't think Jews are naturally more intelligent than blacks, but I think that the generations of diaspora for the Jews have led to a culture that increases academic and business success, while the generations of slavery have created a culture of low family values and educational success that will take at least as long to break as it took to build.



Seems to me this is largely an artifact of selection. Take every person who had one great-grandparent who emigrated from Lebanon a century ago, define them as "Lebanese", and that's a considerable number of people. Now pick out the successful ones from that group, and you have your supposed successful Lebanese. Except that you could probably repeat the same selection process with any immigrant group.


Starting thousands of years ago, the major "diasporas" were either adventurers, traders, explorers or people forced to leave their homelands due to occupation or repression. Some of the earliest diasporas in the western world were Phoenicians, Greeks, and Jews. Most Lebanese are either or Phoenician stock or descendents of western crusaders, and some combination thereof.
Since most diasporas did not get to own land, so they mostly became traders or merchants or "entrepreneurs" as we now call them. Some merchants who became wealthier were able to educate their children so that they became doctors or other professionals. In the case of Jews, literacy was always important and study of the Law was central, so that universal literacy among Jews was instrumental in their survival and sometimes spectacular successes. But there is no secret to the success of many immigrant groups. They know how they have to work hard. They know they will not easily get better jobs, so they often go into some kind of small business when they get the chance. They often initially do business with their own kind, out of necessity.
Now those immigrant groups that come directly from farms, and have no strong tradition of literacy and education, naturally go to farm work or construction. Primary examples are the Mexican migrants.
So the degree of quick success of any immigrant group depends on its (1) literacy rate; (2) its entrepreneural experiences from the "old country" and their ability to get some help from their kinsmen in the new country; (3) their expectations that only hard, tireless work and total focus on their businesses is the only way to keep from sinking deep into poverty from which they know from their old country, there is little hope of escape once mired in the muck.


Fritz Eco

I know a lot of Lebanese and they remind me of the father from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. They will try to find a way to connect anything good to Lebanese and find a way to make anything Lebanese seem good. I am sure this pride is good. But can't the same be said of any group if you just work hard enough on trying to connect to good?


Is it because the Lebanon is a complete disaster? Anyone with brains left. Compare France or the US. If you have brains, good reason to stay. Lebanon, why on earth would you stay?


Here is a stat on Silicon Valley startups founded by immigrants:



This global discourse is presented in English. Surely that gives us all a clue about which diaspora was/is truly the most successful.


Interesting episode, and very good conclusion, maybe natural selection is breeding out the best of us all.


There are even more.
Check Claude Comair (owner of digipen institute of technology).

Ziad Moubarak

Thank you for covering this topic. As a Lebanese indicidual myself, I am tired of listening to elders speak of a Lebanese genetic superiority over other people.

I think any further exploration about this topic should include an analysis of success rates of Christian vs Muslim immigrants. Historically Lebanese immigrants have been predominantly Christian, but have constituted of both Christians and Muslims.

I am curious to know whether religion played a role in society integration and subsequent success of an individual. Keeping this in mind, I wonder whether Christians were better able to adapt to western culture.

On the other hand, Muslims were more likely subject to more external pressures than Christians During their transition. Was this a factor which helped breed more success in the Muslim community?


The Economist had an article of the same nature: http://theinnercircle.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/the-economist-the-lebanese-diaspora/

Charbel Maroun

We're forgetting several American Lebanese: Ray Lahood, Darrell Issa, Ralf Nader, Michael Debakey and how can we forget... Helen Thomas!

and I'm sure many more, who don't dare say they're Lebanese.