USask alum Raymond Ghajar meets with a foreign dignitary in his office (Contributed photo)

To Beirut and back

USask still feels like home for Lebanon’s energy minister

It’s quite likely most Canadians haven’t seen as much of Canada as Lebanon’s minister of energy and water has seen.

In fact, of the 15 years Raymond Ghajar (MSc’87, PhD’93) studied and worked in Canada, he lived in 11 different locales across the country.

About half of that time was spent at the University of Saskatchewan as Ghajar obtained both his master’s and PhD in electrical engineering.

Ghajar, 59, originally came to Canada, as many Lebanese students did back in the day, in an effort to obtain a good education and, at the same time, avoid the civil war strife at home. Ghajar says, in the ‘70s, most students in Lebanon either went to Canada or France. He selected Canada.

His first stop in Canada was in Moncton, N.B., but Ghajar quickly found the situation to be a little too challenging. Ghajar spoke French, but not New Brunswick-style French.

“I found French a little different from what I was used to speaking,” said Ghajar, in a telephone interview from Beirut.

Ghajar, as with other Lebanese students, often speak Arabic, English and French.

After about three weeks, Ghajar received a call that he had been accepted into a program at the University of Ottawa. In short order, he made the move.

“In Ottawa, I was studying in French and learning English at the same time.”

After his first year in Ottawa, he started taking all his classes in English.

Raymond Ghajar (Contributed photo)

Multiple language skills are something that is essential for people in his home country and puts students on a path to prosperity, he believes.

“This is not uncommon. In Lebanon, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t speak at least three different languages.”

Ghajar says the education system in Lebanon is set up for students to become proficient in at least three languages and provides students with an advantage to continue their education abroad, the path Ghajar followed.

After achieving his bachelor of science in electrical engineering degree in Ottawa, Ghajar moved to Germany, worked for a year and pondered his next step.

“I wanted to pursue (a master’s of science) in the area of reliability of power systems with my adviser, Dr. Kurt Schenk, but he moved to Vienna to join the International Atomic Agency. Before leaving, he advised me to contact Dr. Roy Billinton at USask because he was the renowned authority in the field. So, I did and ended up completing my MS and PhD at USask.”

Billinton remembers Ghajar very well.

“I hold (Ghajar) in very high regard,” said Billinton. “He was very easy to mentor and was such a dedicated student.”

Even after Ghajar left Canada, Billinton says he would run into Ghajar at conferences so he was able to keep track of his protégé’s career. 

Ghajar has stark recollections of his arrival in Saskatoon.

“At that time, I had never even heard of Saskatoon or knew where it was. When I got there I was totally surprised,” Ghajar says. “When I landed, I couldn’t believe how flat the land was. No trees. Super flat. Big sky country.”

Of course, the Lebanese community wasn’t large back then, but Ghajar struck up a friendship with Dr. Kay Nasser and his family. Nasser was a professor who had also came from Lebanon.

“Indeed, we spent memorable times together in Saskatoon,” adding he is still in contact with the Nasser family, who have become noted philanthropists in the USask community.

Ghajar didn’t keep his nose in his studies the whole time he spent in Saskatoon. He recalls with great fondness his canoeing and camping trips with friends into the wilds of northern Saskatchewan.

“You go for four or five days and you are completely isolated from humanity,” he laughs.

There is a constant, however, that remains from his USask studies. That is simply trying to get the most from his work.

“Since my studies at USask were strictly graduate, I can tell you that discipline and hard work were the main drivers inculcated in everyone’s mind to achieve their mission,” said Ghajar. “We were there for a reason and we all strived to accomplish it in the best way possible.”

After graduation, Ghajar left Saskatoon for the private sector in Alberta for a few years before heading south to San Diego for a position. After about a year, he got a call from Lebanon asking him to return home for an academic role at the Lebanese American University.

“I always wanted to be in an academic setting because of the freedom it provides to do consulting and advising,” said Ghajar. “Had I found a teaching opportunity in Canada or the U.S. at the time, I would not have come back to Lebanon and become a minister.

“It is destiny, isn’t it?”

USask alum Raymond Ghajar meets with foreign dignitaries (Contributed photo)

Today’s Lebanon is struggling, but growing also Ghajar says. The economy has been wracked by financial instability in recent years, but he believes the new cabinet introduced in January, of which he is a key member, is on the right path to new prosperity.

Just recently, Lebanon began its first exploratory search for offshore oil and gas supplies which would go a long way to alleviate a pandemic financial crisis.

“If they find a commercial quantity, this puts you on a different trajectory altogether,” he said, noting it will still take some time to see any wealth trickle through the economy.

Ghajar, as the government’s energy minister has a front-row seat in this endeavour and is confident something will be found in the eastern Mediterranean, given the success other countries in the region have seen in drilling.

“It could be historic for Lebanon. It could be like the oilsands in Athabasca.”

One other area he sees growth in Lebanon is with gender equality. For instance, the country’s 20-member cabinet has six women in various roles.

“I’m glad this government has decided to take the plunge.”

Even in his engineering classes at the Lebanese American University, Ghajar has seen more females enrolled than ever before.

“In my school now, a class of 40 has around 18 women. We encourage females to study.”

Ghajar’s Canadian connections are now moving to a new generation as his son Kevin is hoping to attend medical school at McGill University in the fall. His daughter, Kristen, is in Grade 10 and could also follow her brother to Canada and would leave Ghajar and wife Jinane as empty-nesters back home in Beirut. That might provide Ghajar the impetus to return to Canada and revisit some of his old USask haunts and rekindle friendships.

As Ghajar contends, one never knows where they will end up.

Share this story