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