A once-thriving Lebanese community in Colombia is struggling for survival

Members of Maicao, Colombia’s Muslim community pray at the Omar Ibn Al-Jattab mosque, built in 1997.
Members of Maicao, Colombia’s Muslim community pray at the Omar Ibn Al-Jattab mosque, built in 1997. El Tiempo

Religious holidays have always been an occasion to measure the strength of the Lebanese community in this sweltering border town. On a recent Friday, during the waning days of Ramadan, worshipers barely filled three rows of the mosque as their Egyptian imam led them in prayer.

“Less than a decade ago, we could fill up nine rows easily,” said Hassan Jomaa, as he translated the Arabic sermon at the back of the massive hall. “There were times where this room was so full that people had to pray outside.”

Lebanese immigrants have called Colombia home since at least the 19th century. And while Maicao is not the largest such community, it’s one of the most vibrant.

The bustling commercial town of about 150,000 people doesn’t have a movie theater but supports eight Arabic television stations; Middle Eastern delicacies such as kibbeh and shawarma compete with Colombian arepas and buñuelos in food stalls; and posters of Lebanese soccer stars share walls with portraits of Ché Guevara and other Latin American icons.

Rising above a sea of vendors hawking textiles and trinkets is the minaret of the Omar Ibn Al-Jattab mosque - the cultural cornerstone of the community. Built in 1997, the mosque has a 1,476 square-foot prayer room that can easily fit 700 men. The women pray in another area of the building. It’s thought to be the third-largest mosque in Latin America - after structures in Argentina and Venezuela. But unlike those institutions, built with Arab funds, Maicao’s mosque was financed by the local community, Jomaa said.

But it has been years since the prayer hall was full. During the last decade, about half the community has left, leaving 800 to 1,000 Arabs in Maicao, said Nedal Serhan, the president of the Islamic Benevolent Association.

In Colombia, there are thought to be about 20,000 Muslims, most from the Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese communities that came to the Americas seeking refuge from both World Wars and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Indira Issa sits on Maicao’s city council and was the first member of the Lebanese community to win local office.

She said there are several forces pulling her community apart. A rash of kidnappings, extortion and violence in the past decade has sent entire families packing; government regulations are strangling a once thriving merchant class; and the weak economy in neighboring Venezuela is stifling trade.

This is all exacerbated by the fact that Maicao’s Lebanese community has never been politically active, Issa said.

“The Lebanese have always focused on trade and commerce and turned their backs on politics,” she said, as she served small cups of strong coffee. “But you can’t have progress without politics.”

That’s in contrast to other parts of the country where members of the Lebanese community - particularly Lebanese Christians - are part of the political structure. Colombia’s former president, Julio César Turbay, for example, was of Lebanese descent.

But Maicao’s community is learning: There are three Lebanese candidates running for city council and one for state assembly in October’s municipal elections.

Atif Issa is Indira’s father and the head of Maicao’s powerful textile association. Now 70, Issa arrived in Maicao in the 1960s, when the town was largely dominated by Wayuu Indians.

He said the Lebanese had been living along the Colombian and Venezuelan coasts for years, but saw fresh opportunities in Maicao, which lies in northern Colombia about six miles from the Venezuelan border. The Wayuu, who live on both sides of the frontier, don’t need documents to travel back and forth. That made them ideal partners for running contraband goods - mainly appliances, textiles and shoes - that the Lebanese brought in through Aruba, Issa said.

“At that time, 80 percent of the businesses in this town were run by Arabs,” he said.

Arabs would have dominated the market were it not for Muslim prohibitions, Issa said. “The other 20 percent of businesses were the whisky and cigar shops run by the Wayuus,” he said.

Even today, about 85 percent of the members of the textile association Issa oversees are Lebanese, he said.

Maicao still has a reputation as a smugglers’ haven, but that’s not the reality anymore. The government has local merchants on strict import quotas and tax inspectors hover over the town, Issa said.

While those controls have stymied smuggling and money laundering, they’re crushing the community, said Bassem Yebera, a 28-year-old, second-generation Lebanese who is running for city council.

Yebera has a chain of toy and textile stores called “Hay Karamba” and he has turned the ubiquitous brand into his campaign logo, too.

Even as Colombia is negotiating a free trade agreement with the United States, it’s keeping local merchants - who operate in a special trade zone - on strict quotas that make it hard for businesses to plan or expand, he said.

Maicao merchants pay 4 percent tariff on all their imports.

“If they lifted the restrictions, then businesses might start coming back,” he said. “And we would pay more to the government, which could use that money for projects that would benefit the community.”

They are an integral part of the community, even though many locals here refer to the Lebanese and other Arabs as Turcos or Turks - a holdover from when the initial waves of Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian immigrants were part of the Ottoman Empire.

The Ayuuleepala indigenous health center sits in the shadow of the mosque. Estella Restrepo is a Wayuu and the organization’s head of human resources.

“The Arabs are part of our culture now,” said Restrepo, who confessed that tabbouleh was one of her favorite meals. “They get along well with everyone. If they didn’t they wouldn’t have lasted here so long.”

At his Mona Lisa shop, which sells kitchenware and appliances, Jomaa watched pilgrims on the Hajj in Mecca on one of the local TV stations.

He said Lebanese children today may be too integrated. They have dreams of going to Miami, Panama or Brazil, he said.

“Before, when Lebanese would arrive here, they didn’t even know where they were but they made this place their life,” Jomaa said. “Now, there are so many places for them to go. Before, there was only Maicao.”