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Lebanese Canadians on edge as Canada urges evacuation amid escalating tension along Israel border

Canada is urging its citizens to leave Lebanon due to amid concerns about escalating danger as fighting along the country’s border with Israel rachets up in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.

And anxieties about how far the fighting might escalate and Ottawa’s recent warnings about the possibility of being unable to evacuate Canadians has many Lebanese Canadians in Toronto and Beirut on edge. 

Despite the warnings, Canadian citizen Hanan Haddad says she’s staying put for now, given her husband isn’t Canadian. Haddad’s 16-year-old son lives with her in Lebanon and her two older sons live in Canada. 

“I don’t think I’m willing to leave him behind,” said Haddad, who has lived in Beirut for 25 years. “Me and my children are Canadians but my husband isn’t.

There are 17,750 Canadians in Lebanon who have registered with Global Affairs Canada, the department said in a statement on Oct. 31. 

Its message to citizens in that country: “Get out while you can.”

Global Affairs said the situation in Lebanon is “deteriorating” and that it encourages residents to leave by commercial means as assisted departures are “complex and rare.”

“The best time to leave a country is before a crisis, if at all possible,” it said. 

A woman stands with her children and husband on a stairwell.
Hanan Haddad is a dual Canadian-Lebanese citizen who lives in Beirut with her youngest son and her husband. While all her sons are Canadian citizens, her husband is not. For now they’re staying put in Lebanon. (Submitted by Hanan Haddad)

Spouses and dependent children who are not Canadian citizens will require a visa or electronic travel authorization, it said. Haddad’s husband is in the process of getting a new passport and visa to Canada, she said.

Global Affairs did not respond to a further question from CBC Toronto about whether repatriation efforts would occur if the need arises. In a statement, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said the visa application centre remains open in Beirut. 

“We are increasing our capacity in the region to expedite applications,” it said. 

But another hurdle for Haddad’s family is the cost of flights, she said. 

Flights to Toronto are about $1,000 each. 

That coupled with news about the destruction in Gaza has Haddad increasingly worried, she said. 

“We’re living day by day because things are changing drastically. Is the war coming here today, is it tomorrow?” she said. 

Fewer exits from Lebanon compared to 2006

Fighting between Israeli forces and Hezbollah militants along Israel’s border with Lebanon has increased in the weeks since Hamas attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing over 1,400 people. 

The Ministry of Health in Gaza says that 8,500 people have been killed as of this week, which includes close to 3,500 children.

Jens Hanssen, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Toronto, said Lebanon is already “on its knees” due to the current financial crisis and fallout from the 2020 port explosion.

“The thing about Lebanon is there’s only one way you can get out, and that’s the Beirut airport…or by boat to Cyprus,” he said. Syria was previously available as a route out during the 2006 war with Israel, which saw a large evacuation of over 15,000 Canadian citizens, but that’s no longer the case, said Hanssen.

A Canadian flag is held up, on the right side of the image, above a large crowd of people stand outside.
Canadian nationals are seen waiting to board one of six chartered passenger ships off the coast of Beirut on July 19, 2006. The evacuation from Lebanon was one of the largest in Canadian history at the time. (Mahmoud Tawil/The Associated Press)

The current situation is also different from 2006 because that war came as a surprise, Hanssen said.

“There was no time for planning. We went from no war to evacuate within days. Now, there’s still hope that Hezbollah and Israel do not open a second front on the Lebanese-Israeli border,” he said.

But the Canadian embassy and other Western governments being cautious by recommending citizens leave, he said. 

“All embassies are much more jittery now than they ever were before,” he said. 

The Lebanese diaspora is also feeling the anxiety in Toronto, said resident Taha Shanouha.

For Shanouha, it’s been nearly a month of recurrent nightmares.

“I woke up in the middle of the night because I dreamt that the building in front of my house back home was bombed,” he said. 

The 28-year-old, who moved from his home of Beirut to Toronto last August, said he worries about extended family and friends back home.

Shanouha, who came to Canada to work as a photographer, said the 2006 war with Israel showed him that “you never know when things could happen at any sudden moment.”

And it’s not just that war— Shanouha said the Lebanese people have gone through many tragedies including an economic crisis, the 2020 Beirut port explosion and riots over its currency crash. 

“I am very worried because Beirut is also a very dense, tight and crowded city. If bombs fall…it will be very bad,” he said. 

‘Guilt’ over leaving Lebanon behind

Toronto resident Mona Ahmad said she was relieved when her parents returned from Beirut back to Canada this week. Ahmad was born in Lebanon and her family emigrated to Canada when she was a child.

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When they arrived in Toronto, Ahmad said she felt immediate relief. “But then the guilt sets in and you realize that safety and security is a privilege not afforded to everyone,” she said. 

Her family in Lebanon who are Canadian citizens are not “in rush mode” yet, she said. 

“They have it in the back of their minds. People have been through wars and there comes a time when nothing, no conflict, will keep you away from your motherland,” she said. 

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