Lebanon has named a new diplomat to represent its interests in the state of Georgia.
Restaurant and retail entrepreneur Wassim Hojeij was approved by the U.S. State Department Aug. 1 to serve as the state’s first honorary consul from an Arab League nation.
Mr. Hojeij came to Atlanta as a student at 22 and later founded Hojeij Branded Foods, which started as an airport concessionaire in Atlanta that grew over time into a major player in the airport restaurant business nationwide.
The company was sold last November to the North American branch of Paris-based Lagardère Travel Retail for $330 million. HBF’s revenues were expected to eclipse $240 million this year.
“We believe in small business. We started as a small business and we grew to become a large company. We owe the Atlanta community a lot because that’s where home is,” Mr. Hojeij told Global Atlanta in a telephone interview. “We wanted to give back to the community, and this was a great opportunity for me to start giving back and opening doors.”
Mr. Hojej took the diplomatic gig partly to look out for the interests of the estimated 7,000 first-generation Lebanese in the metro area, but he also aims to foster trade and understanding.
“At this point, it’s important that we create that cultural exchange,” he said.
Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, was known in the early 20th century as the Paris of the Middle East. The country of 6 million people is located on the Mediterranean Sea north of Israel and encircled on the east and north by Syria.
Its later 20th-century history was marred by conflict, including a 15-year civil war. Many Americans will associate Beirut with a 1983 suicide bombing of a U.S. Marine Corps barracks there that killed more than 300 people, including 241 American military personnel. The country is also known as the home of Hezbollah, the Shi’ite political party and militant group the U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist organization.
But the former French colony is at times split between its European cultural leanings and pockets of conservatism. Lebanon is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the region, with a near even split between Sunni and Shi’a Islam and a sizable Christian population scattered across various sects and denominations. A substantial Druze minority also makes Lebanon home.
Mr. Hojeij hopes to overcome any negative historical perceptions. He believes the hallmark of his native country is its cosmopolitanism, as it boasts a well-educated population accustomed to a mix of languages and cultures. Many Lebanese in the U.S. are entrepreneurs, traders, doctors and engineers, he said.
“Openness to the world is what Lebanon is all about, so we wanted to make sure that this is brought out of Lebanon and the story is told,” he said.
He also wants promote Atlanta in the Middle East, a region he feels hasn’t yet understood the charms of his adoptive home of nearly four decades. Atlanta, where his four children were born and where three eventually graduated from Emory University, has a lot to offer foreign investors, he said.
“If you bring their attention to Atlanta, maybe they will follow,” he said of Middle Eastern businesspeople.
Lebanon faces some tough contemporary challenges. It hosts a disproportionately large population of refugees from the drawn-out Syrian civil war, and its government is seeking external help with its high levels of sovereign debt.
Notwithstanding, Mr. Hojeij remains bullish on the opportunity growing economic ties with Georgia.
“It’s time,” he said. “My intention is to spend my time doing this, creating opportunities and grow small businesses, because that is what Lebanon is all about, and helping the community to grow.”
Abby Turano, deputy commissioner for international relations at the Georgia Department of Economic Development, welcomed the addition of a new country to Georgia’s consular corps.
“With the addition of Mr. Hojeij as Honorary Consul of Lebanon, the Consular Corps in Georgia now includes 86 consular and trade offices in total, including 26 consuls general, 47 honorary consuls, and about a dozen trade offices,” said Ms. Turano told Global Atlanta in a statement. “This group is a vital and vibrant symbol of the international communities they support and serve in the Southeast. We are pleased to welcome Wassim Hojeij to the Corps.”
The honorary consulate will have a physical office in Atlanta. Mr. Hojeij said he is scouting locations and plans to host an opening event during the first quarter of next year.