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.


well if I look at what has become of Lebanon over quite a number of years, I would have to congratulate all of the successful emigrants for having escaped, with glee as it seems, and left behind such a ruinous place.....love of one's heritage!!!!


I wonder how success correlates to the decline of religious observance. Case in point, I've recently been tracking the process of secularization in my own immigrant family history, not that we've become wildly successful (though I do have cousins in this same tree who are):



I'm so happy to read this, but the one thing I argue with as a Syrian American we say most of these people migrated in the late 19 century were Syrian as at that time there was only Syria under the Ottoman Empire. But the Lebanese they deny that because of the conflict and they call the self Lebanese.
What ever the case is I'm glad to read this, thanks.

Anthony Overcreek

The title of the podcast was "Who Are the Most Successful Immigrants in the World?," but that question was never seriously addressed and certainly wasn't answered. Maybe you could do another podcast where you compare and contrast different groups of immigrants (not just the Lebanese) and try and answer the proposed question.

a Kadri

As a lebanese immigrant to this country, I am always baffled by this phenomenon of claimining that "rich" and "famous" people are Lebanese or descendents thereof. At one point, there were claims that Shakespeare is Lebanese!!!

It is interesting that some Lebanese are wealthy and successful. I am interested in knowing more about social involvement, philanthropy, humanitarian work, etc.

if John Elway is Lebanese, then I am a 7 foot, blonde hair, blue eyes Scandanavian.

Thank you for the entertaining article.

PS Is Mohammad Ali Lebanese? Shhh. Do not answer.

Not Lebanese

Cherry picking. Most diaspora can put up a Hall of Fame list of successful people. I was not super-impressed with the list of successful Lebanese. The guy who owns the bridge from Canada to Detroit is one of the highlights? Whoopee.

Look at the Greeks. German. Irish. Italians. Koreans. They all have industry moguls.

I believe the part about how adversity breed success. Sometimes it takes decades or a generation. Many diaspora come from adversity.

Dennis abu Yusef

My grandfather immigrated from a tiny village in the Chouf Mountains of Lebanon at the turn of the 19th Century. Young, illiterate, poor and speaking no English he took a ship over the seas and arrived here in the East Coast of the US. He worked in the mills of Massachusetts and raised a large family of 7 kids. My father fought WWII and used the GI Bill to get an education. He moved to the MidWest. He raised a family of 3. He retired from the USPS as a Postmaster. His children have post graduate degrees in the professions and have moved further West. Each generation realizing economic betterment and the Lebanese version of the American Dream. Our family heritage fueled our dreams and efforts. Like many with my pedigree, I tend to celebrate everything Lebanese. The streets of American are paved in kibbeh.... that's what my grandfather used to say. Eat well. Live well. Prosper. Never forget where you came from or where you are going. Thanks USA for welcoming my family and giving us the chance to use our blessings to make a contribution to this great country.


Amy Zimmer

Gotta ask, gotta know, about the Lebanese education stat...men vs. women. Are all those degrees spread evenly across genders?


The ex president of Argentina Carlos Menem, yup you guessed it Lebanese.

Although many people in Argentina hate him ,and he had to run away to Chile because they have warrants for his arrest.

Although we do have large group of Lebanese immigrants in Argentina. So not sure if Menem was most famous or richest out of all of them .

michel j.raphael

this is one more proove confirming the lebanese as being from phenician descend,,,

like the pheniciens they failed to have a central authority on one single country,,,,

but the phenicien diaspora chalange even Rome from one of there setlements in the western part of mediteraneen world called Carthage(actual tunisia)


We are the champions

Ziad Antoun

I would've loved it if Mr. Kader did not constantly refer and equate Lebanese immigrants with Arab immigrants. We had had enough of Arab violence and backward behavior and mentality. The majority of Lebanese are NOT Arabs, albeit there are arabs in Lebanon. This by the way , has nothing to do with religion, you have different lineages from both Christians and Muslims. The success of Lebanese immigrants stem from their Phoenician heritage, an unbelievable history of accomplichements.

Alexy Chemaly

I was a Lebanese immigrant for 20 year of my life , as they mantion in your lovely program you find lots like the father of Mr Athullah who's are so proud to be Lebanese as mush as the war discriminate our Lebanese identity , and most of us fight back to cleare it out in most of our forean conversation .i like to add something to your information that there is many Lebanese historians that tel you about the mythology of let's say the garden of Aden it's village named Ehden now prosper in water 2 rivers that meet at delta and lovely apples tree s ext means that Adam and Eve met in Lebanon the legend of Adonis and Ashtarout or Ishtar symbol of the triad and the Phoenix bird that dies and rise from the death Ishtar tho mother giving ( Christ ,, and mother of god Mary ) all symbols of offerings sacrifice s father mother son , all that you find in that little country Lebanon and so on many many history i can say in every inch in every person you meet you find a unique person that generate a unique individual Lebanese strong motivated each ones house is made in a way that can count on him self water well if not a little creek collect rain water veg garden little forest to collect wood , cave or under house for domestic animal (goat lamb chickens cow....) oh and a cat very important to chase mice and snakes that's the way we survived I throwers mountains up to now and most important for Lebanese is education it is a challenge in each family to get his kids educated . Even self knowledge ,, hope will survive the forth coming war now and more and more ....



I think that this article is very good, and informative, but that it is partially one sided, there is no information in this article that suggests anything other than that lebanese people are superior. And from the facts that are provided, it would seem as if they are, but sadly there are no other.


I would challenge this as well. First of all I would say that other groups (measured as a combined group) would probably beat the Lebanese if you are measuring it simply on wealth. I would also say you are perhaps limiting your scope if you focus on wealth. I suspect that many refugees would consider themselves more successful. And lastly, you are confining this to the US which has only had a fraction of the emigration in the history of the world. A fraction.

If you look at successful immigration as ability to establish a community anywhere in the world, South Asians would have to be the most successful diaspora.. From Tokelau to Tanzania back around the globe to Tuvalu; South Asians have successfully immigrated. In terms of numbers they would probably then succeed on total wealth created.

It would be difficult to measure it in any other way but I think other groups would probably come up as more successful if measured on quality of life.



What was the name of the person Nassim Taleb mentioned - in the context of type 1 and 2 listening...? Daniel someone...

Karl Hempel

If Mr. Taleb believes this story, he too has been fooled by randomness


Hi, I'd like to know if there any serious paper about migrants and succesful economic. If anyone knows about it please. Thanks.


This podcast was joke! Did Mr. Taleb sponsor it? How could have you missed covering American Indians and South Asians in general ..