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.

Nagi Hmouda

Lebanese are competitive by nature. By nature here, I mean geography and politics. Geography, because modern history Lebanese were mostly villagers, working the land, their own land ( this explains their entrepreneur spirit), but also because Lebanon is a crossroad of civilization. They saw many conquests, with everything good or bad thing they brought to the country. So life was not too easy. as a matter of fact, it was so hard that it lead the Lebanese to immigrate. Not wanting to go back to misery, is in itself the biggest motivator to overachieve, to be competitive and even aggressive. This together with the eagerness to be like western civilization was and still is a major motivator in wanting to pursue higher studies. From the school under the tree in the village to Harvard. Perhaps, one of the most successful diaspora are the Lebanese who originate from the South of Lebanon and who fled to Africa. South of Lebanon has witnessed wars, deprivation and misery! For them Africa, in its worst part is a sweet ride compared to what they have been through back at home....just an example to further substantiate my theory. The worst part, is that our story is far from ending!



Definitely need to add Rony Seikaly to this list as well. The ex-NBA player is currently a very successful businessman in the States and also happens to DJ in some of the best clubs in Miami and Europe when he travels abroad.

khaled koleilat

pride is what drives us Lebanese to be successful.


I think a lot of this has to do with WHO were the people who left. As they mention, many of the people who left were already educated and had connections. In other countries, many of the people who left were the poor who left to find more opportunities. If you select a group of highly educated people and a group of uneducated people, and then ask, in a generation or two, how many of them are well educated it seems to me not too surprising that the descendants of the former will more likely be well educated. When my illiterate, uneducated grandparents immigrated it was a bit different than if someone with a college education immigrated with regard to their opportunities.
Also, as others have pointed out, what % of your ancestors have to be from a certain country for you to consider yourself that nationality? I for example can trace my recent ancestry from at least 4 countries? As an educated, professional person, do all those nationalities get to count me?


Mike D

A few Lebanese get wealthy but it seems like they don't take care of those who are less fortunate in their society. Lebanon has the 3rd highest wealth disparity in the world. They may have a lot of successful individuals but I wouldn't call them a successful culture.



Interesting. I don't think the title fits. I feel like the thesis was why are Lebanese successful, not who among all immigrants are the most successful.


My dad came during the civil war speaking only Arabic and French and NO ENGLISH. He ate only a couple of meals a week and was living in extreme poverty. Now he has a very successful business job and a very good salary. I'm proud of my dad's success and I'm proud to be Lebanese.

Yamile Hadad

I'm very proud of my Lebanese ancestors, my father emigrated to Cuba, in the first half of last century, was very successful, in less than thirty years, when Castro confiscated all private business, He lost his large sugar-cane and cattle farms and a solid real-estate business then he moved to US and be involved on business again, as a good Lebanese, he never complain.

James M

I call "malarkey" on one part of the podcast; mainly when they say the genetic predisposition and/or the genetic makeup of Lebanese leading to their success. I believe that all people-as a whole-are born equal... No one culture has "better" people. Opportunities, cultural norms and values, infrastructure all help; but a genius can overcome any obstacles to flourish.

I see two big reasons that the diaspora has shown successful: First, they are comparing both as general populations -- they are not. One, the 40% of the country that left had at least the resources that left; therefore, these are mostly middle to upper class people (not a full "general population."

Second, possibly more importantly, they said the population stick together... they network and call relatives, other Lebanese, etc. When one networks- be it college alumni, sports teams, regional commerce groups, etc- they do better (advance faster, sell more, et al.). This is a bigger advantage than a modern day Lebanese man whose forefathers 300 generations ago were successful merchants.

This is why I don't to subscribe to the "better genes" theory. I'd really like Ste-Dub to explore more similar populations (Lebanese expats to the portion of the population that has access to networks); or reverse the study (American expats vs Lebanese general populace), and finally, to compare both general populations and we'd see it less skewed. I do NOT want to take away how well the Lebanese have done, I just want to highlight that there are other unaddressed factors.



Thank you for the interesting program. Perhaps one reason for the success of Lebanese immigrants is what I'd like to call the "Teta" effect. I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with my Lebanese grandmother while growing up. My teta and her sisters labored without economic gain for their brothers' successful business. They also made huge sacrifices for their own families. My hardworking, loving teta taught me to roll a grape leaf, dance the dabke, and to be kind.


Now do one about overseas Filipino workers.


Was it a slow day at the freakanomics studios ?

I mean I get it that the Lebanese are fairly successful, but you could write a similar story about pretty much every other community / country / subtype in some field or other.

Here are some ideas for future podcasts.

Jews in the Diamond trade, Indians in I.T. / Startups, Australians in Sport, Historically the English in Scientific discovery, Americans in the art of Money getting and Innovation.

Obviously this episode made heaps of Lebanese feel good judging from the comments but overall, didn't have any meat or substance, given time and some reasearch you could construct similar success stories about pretty much every other community.

More importantly scored you brownie points with all your lebanese friends for flattering them.