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Ottawa Immigration Consultant Has His Heart in Two Worlds

September 19, 2018 | By | More

Ottawa immigration consultant has his heart in two worlds

An Arab son’s crusade for cultural reform in the Middle East

  • Ottawa Citizen          17 Sep 201
  • 8BRIAN MCCULLOUGH Postmedia Content Works

BRIAN MCCULLOUGH

Nasrallah-ElieElie Nasrallah is a familiar figure in the local Lebanese community. His own experience of leaving a war-torn homeland behind to start a new life in Canada helps keep him rated as one of the top immigration consultants in Ottawa.

Asking someone about their home town might seem like an innocent enough question, but in the area of eastern Lebanon where Ottawa immigration consultant Elie Mikhael Nasrallah grew up, a question like this could have menacing undertones — especially with a bitter sectarian civil war tearing the country apart.

In his 2014 book, None of the Above: How the Unaffiliated are Redefining Religion and Keeping Faith, Nasrallah described how as an 18-year-old student he narrowly escaped a potentially lethal situation after this question was put to him by a stranger who picked him up as he hitchhiked along the highway to Zahle. It was a foolish thing to be doing in 1977, he admits. The tide of war had been shifting across Lebanon for two years by then, and it paid to be cautious.

“That question was code language,” Nasrallah, 59, recalls. “When I said I was from the village of Kfar Meshki farther south, he knew right away I was a Christian in a Muslim area.”

The small Roman Orthodox village of Kfar Meshki lies in the hilly terrain that borders the southern edge of the fertile Beqaa Valley, 50 kilometres southeast of Beirut. The summers there are hot, perfect for growing grapes, olives and figs, but the region also receives heavy snowfalls in winter. Once upon a time the villagers might have met the caravans travelling the nearby ancient Silk Road between Damascus and the Phoenician port city of Tyre (Sur) to trade tanned leather products and other goods, and to exchange knowledge and cultural ideas. It was an early information highway.

The tense situation in the stranger’s car grew even more ominous when the driver suddenly pulled up at a roadside café and got out to converse with a group of rough-looking men. Nasrallah, now terrified for his safety, chose to remain inside the parked vehicle rather than draw further attention to himself. After nearly an hour, the man returned to the car and abruptly told the terrified lad to get out and be on his way. It was a close call — the danger had been all too real.

“I felt a huge relief that I had been spared,” Nasrallah said during an interview in his Kanata home, “but I saw how the non-separation of religion and politics was a poisonous mix that can wreak havoc.”

That simple realization, with all of its worrisome implications for stability in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world, would change the direction of Nasrallah’s life. It also continues to inform how this married father of two approaches his work in Ottawa today as he counsels hopeful migrants seeking better lives for themselves in Canada.

Nasrallah knows first-hand what poverty and instability caused by war can do to people, and recalls the terrible weekly scenes of grief in his village as parents and siblings bid farewell to family members who were leaving to take up new lives abroad.

“It was the same story in almost every village,” he said. “The weeping and wailing of the mothers and sisters was terrible to hear. Lebanon was exporting its educated youth to all over the world to find livelihood.”

More than a century ago, a number of Nasrallah’s distant relatives, desperate to find new opportunities in North America, took passage aboard the RMS Titanic. Sadly, not all of them survived the 1912 sinking.

In 1980, Nasrallah himself left his homeland to follow other family members to the United States and Canada. After a brief stay in central New York State to attend a semester at Cortland State College, not far from where his uncle Mikhail was a professor of plant biology at Cornell University in Ithaca, he joined his older brother Ghassan in Ottawa, home of the largest Kfar Meshki community outside Lebanon. As he danced his first night away in a Hull discotheque with his brother and friends, Nasrallah had no way of knowing that the civil war he had left behind would rage on for another decade. It would be 20 years before the two brothers would see their parents make their own journey to resettle near them in Ottawa.

Nasrallah said he felt a sense of emancipation as he completed an Honours BA in political science at Carleton University, figuring this would be a good stepping stone toward fulfilling his dream of becoming a lawyer. The difficult reality of overcoming typical immigrant barriers relating to “language, culture and money” would soon take law school off the table for Nasrallah, but social advocacy was still very much in his cards. Having survived the uncertainties of life in a war-ravaged homeland, he remained optimistic about his future, confident in his ability to adapt and move on.

Nasrallah has always been a keen student of the social sciences, and says he likes to understand the deep roots of problems. Influenced by the likes of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Lebanese-American poet Kahlil Gibran, and Anglo-American social critic Christopher Hitchens, he has become a tireless political and social commentator. His key crossover themes extol the economic and social benefits of multiculturalism and diversity as necessary elements of modern, progressive societies. He maintains that “multiculturalism is a transitional phase, not a destination,” and that “diversity is a modern imperative.”

Nasrallah has also achieved recognition as one of Ottawa’s most highly respected immigration consultants, and someone who Ottawa Life magazine said in 2017 has become “one of the Arab world’s greatest critics” in his calls for peaceful reform in the Middle East.

In 2016, Nasrallah penned what journalist Robert Fulford called “a remarkable book” — Hostage to History: The Cultural Collapse of the 21st Century Arab World. The book has the immediacy of an essay, and is Nasrallah’s plain-spoken personal assessment of how the mix of religion and politics, illiteracy, the oppression of women, and the lack of freedoms and rule of law are causing the Arab Middle East to stagnate in a dark age of its own making. It’s an impassioned plea for a return to modernity in a region that once enriched its citizens and those of the world beyond through an Arab culture — “a shining city on a hill,” Nasrallah calls it — that celebrated knowledge in all of its forms.

“We are all hostages to history,” Nasrallah said, “but each successive generation has to initiate change from within. The change must be incremental, otherwise it is chaos.”

The book offers a clinical prescription for the cultural change Nasrallah says is urgently needed in the land of his ancestors, and is clearly a work of passion from this native Arab son who has his heart and mind in two worlds. Nasrallah’s forthright tone and lack of sugar-coating certainly caught Fulford’s notice.

“He delivers his ideas with a refreshing bluntness, confident that his generalizations and his observations make sense,” Fulford wrote in the National Post shortly after the book’s release. “Given the situation today, it’s bracing to know that someone can even suggest radical changes in the Middle East that might possibly work.”

Nasrallah was named one of the Top 25 People in the Capital for 2016 by Ottawa Life magazine, and is currently featured as one of Three Best Rated’s top immigration consultants in Ottawa. He says he is proud of the letter he received earlier this year, naming his company (Legal Advocacy Plus) as the “2018 Consumer Choice Award winner in the category of Immigration Consultant in the Ottawa area.”

They are worthy honours for a man whose sense of social justice keeps him active in the local Lebanese diaspora with his wife Nancy and their daughters Jessica and Christine, and who remains deeply engaged in the push for peaceful change throughout the Arab world and elsewhere.

As he works with his clients from around the globe, helping new immigrants to cross the culture divide on the bridges he constructs for them, he is busy writing a new book about the walls that migrants face in today’s uncertain world as they search for lives filled with better promise. Nasrallah says that, for everyone’s sake, it is important that we all heed the lessons of history – especially where truth is concerned – so that people may be treated fairly in their pursuit of happiness.

“Truth is often considered the exclusive domain of religious, political or social authority,” he said. “We seem to take it on face value that authority is synonymous with the truth, and that’s a part of everyone’s culture that needs to change. Truth is independent from authority. It needs to be discovered — not declared.”

 

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