The ethical vegan Jordi Casamitjana interviews George G. Hayek, the founder of Lebanese Vegans and creator of the first fully vegan hospital in the world.
Preaching by example is the stronger education tool I know.
We are biologically programmed to learn by imitation, not education. Like all mammals, we observe what our parents and older siblings do, and we try to do the same. And like all social primates, we extend this “credibility” label to other members of our societies, especially those who are higher in our perceived hierarchy and therefore have more decision power in the group.
Sure, writing books, teaching in schools, and even posting on social media have educational value, but they can only outdo the imitation game if the numbers getting the message are very high. When I wrote an article titled 50 Tips to Veganise Another Person, one of the tips I gave was, “Your behaviour manifesting your veganism may be more effective in veganising others than your words, as we humans are still animals who communicate mainly by facial expressions, body posture and behaviour. Besides, when we talk to others, their barriers and defensiveness rise up, but they are more relaxed when they just observe us, so they may become more receptive to vegan ideas. If they see you successfully negotiating the obstacles vegans have to navigate in everyday life without making a fuss of it and appearing content and satisfied, that is a very powerful lesson to learn.”
This tip works for everyone, but if you are in a position of power, if you are watched more because you can make decisions that affect many others, your education “power” is much greater. Vegan outreach is not only about commercialism and making fewer people demand animal products for their consumer choices. It’s also about Politics, with a capital P (the total complex of relations between people living in society, and in particular the activities of the governing bodies, members of rule-making organizations, and decision-makers). The more people we help to follow the philosophy of veganism, the bigger the chances that some of them may become decision-makers, and advance the vegan cause much faster.
We need more ethical vegans because we need those with decision power to exercise it based on the philosophy of veganism (doing no harm to other sentient beings and abolishing animal exploitation). Not only politicians. They could be people running schools, universities, restaurants, companies, or even hospitals.
One of these people is George G. Hayek, who runs a hospital in Beirut, Lebanon, which has belonged to his family for generations. Through classical vegan outreach via social media, he eventually became an ethical vegan, and a few years later totally transformed the hospital he still runs. He changed it in a way never seen before. He made it the first fully vegan hospital — not just plant-based, but vegan — as vegan as it could possibly be in the early 21st century — considering there are no vegan alternatives to many medicines yet. The first of its kind in the world.
He had the decision power to do so, and he exercised it accordingly. He did not need the government to tell him to do it. He did not need the majority of the population in Lebanon to tell him to do it. He did not wait, as he knew it was the right thing to do, the ethical thing to do, for himself, his patients, his people, the animals, and the environment.
I wanted to know more about how he did it, so I contacted him via Zoom and he generously allowed me to interview him for this article.
George’s Vegan Journey
I found it particularly interesting how George became vegan, as it shows that some of the posts we vegans use on social media actually work. I better let him explain:
“I was born in Beirut, Lebanon, back on January 5th 1980, so today I’m 42 years old. My background is in business management. I conducted my university studies at the Lebanese American University in Byblos, and then I continued with my Master’s Degree at the same University, but at the Beirut campus. I had a Master’s in Business Administration and then I specialised in hospital management. I’m not a doctor. I didn’t go through the medical side of things, but I run a family hospital. My cousin is a doctor, so he’s handling the medical part, and I am handling the managerial part.
Back in 2012 or 2013, I was browsing my Facebook internet page and I stumbled upon a friend of mine — who I used to consider an “annoying” vegan extremist — who shared footage of a cow in an abattoir being slaughtered. I couldn’t turn a blind eye to the video. I watched it fully. I felt really disturbed and deranged.
I went back to my home, where I have four dogs whom I love so very much. Once I opened the door, I saw how they were welcoming me, and they were showing me unconditional love. And then I started looking at their eyes and I realised that there is someone inside of those sentient beings. I realised that there was no difference between the cow I saw being slaughtered earlier that day on the internet and these dogs I love so very much. Both of them will struggle if they have a sharp enough knife slitting their throat. They will behave in the same way, dying in agony.
First, I was annoyed at my friend. Why would he want to annoy me and post such horrors on my page? But then I understood that it was his responsibility and I was really grateful to that person. And this led me to do my research and dig more.
Being the animal lover that I am, and most of all, being the non-violent person that I claim to be — I think of myself as being a non-violent person and against Injustice in general, against any oppressor that oppresses the weak — I dug deeper into the subject of veganism. I started acknowledging the horrors that are being done, as we speak, behind slaughterhouses’ walls.
At first, I started being a vegetarian. I cut immediately meat, and a couple of months later, I searched more into the dairy industry, I saw its horrors, and I stopped that as well. That’s when I turned vegan.
I decided back then to look the elephant in the eye. I took the decision not to turn a blind eye. I looked at this from an ethical perspective and I realised to what extent we live in fake peace. We wake up in the morning, and we say ‘good morning…have a nice day.’ What good morning are we talking about? What nice day are we talking about, when we have transformed our planet into one giant slaughterhouse? When we breed more than 80 to 90 billion land animals every year, and then slaughter them?
The system is a morally bankrupt failed system, where we use the resources of our planet in a very inefficient way, only to benefit the big lobbies — the lobby of meat, dairy, and Big Pharma because they all work together. Today animal agriculture is the biggest social injustice that we are living in our time. We cannot talk about peace, we cannot consider ourselves peaceful, if we consume, pay, and sponsor extremely horrible acts. Actions do speak louder than words.”
As often happens when people become vegan through the vegan outreach of other vegans, George soon became a vegan activist himself and started doing vegan outreach via social media in the hope that the awakening he experienced could be replicated by other non-vegans out there. But it went further than that. He created a new organisation, called Lebanese Vegans, which is doing a lot of good work.
“Once I grasped all the information that I procured regarding all the aspects of veganism, I did not want to be just vegan. I felt the responsibility. I felt that veganism is not just for you, veganism is for them, for the animals, whereas plant-based is for you, not for them — so I’m vegan, I’m not plant-based. This is when I realised I have a mission to spread awareness.
At the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, I decided to open on social media, on Facebook and Instagram, a page called ‘Lebanese Vegans’. It took me around one year to prepare myself before going into activism — because it’s really crucial for any activist to be well prepared. From the day I started Lebanese Vegans till today, every day I wake up at 4:35 in the morning, I create all my posts on my phone and post them in the morning. This is how I start my day, by spreading awareness of activism.
I know that my account is not a likeable account, because it’s quite harsh, and it’s in your face. Maybe other accounts or other vegan activists have a different approach, which I totally respect. But my approach is based on the way I got affected. I truly believe that there are people like me that will be affected in the way I got affected. So, I show mainly what happens in slaughterhouses. I show the absurdity of eating meat as well.
I truly believe that the strength of the dairy and meat industries is secrecy. For them, the more they are secretive about their products, the more they are successful. And the more they are exposed, the more they will fail. Their strength is to hide. Our strength as activists is to show. This is what I do in Lebanese Vegans, and gladly enough a lot of people joined in the 11 years of its existence. I didn’t expect to be accepted in the way I got accepted.
I then registered Lebanese Vegans as an NGO, and today we have a site. It’s a place where activists meet, which we call the Lebanese Vegans Social Hub. It’s a unique concept in the region. We have a vegan cafe where we offer the cheapest food available. The Hub has a small boutique where we provide the local vegan businesses with a place where they can sell their stuff and we have a One-Stop vegan shop in the area.
Another thing that we have is an Auditorium. We already conducted our first conference there, so it’s a place where vegans, and also non-vegans, are welcome so that we can discuss veganism together. At the end of the day, non-vegans are not our enemies. I was not vegan not long ago, and you were not vegan not long ago, so we should put ourselves in their shoes and try to educate them, give them the information needed, and eventually good people will adapt to this.
We also distribute plant-based food on a daily basis to people in need. Also, Every Thursday, volunteers come over and pick up food, clothing, blankets, and toys and they visit homeless people.
We also do outreach and live cooking every Sunday in different areas around Beirut, to spread awareness and let people taste delicious veganised comfort food — such as Shawarma, Taouk, Fajitas, Beyond burgers, and Beyond sausages — while explaining why they should stop eating animals. All the boutique and cafe funds and proceeds go to sponsor our relief programme, live cooking, activism, and billboard campaigns.”
Hayek Hospital, the First Fully Vegan Hospital in the World
Helping the vegan community was not enough for George. He wanted to help everyone, including non-vegans, and he had an opportunity to do so. He had a family hospital he was running. He was the decision-maker of that hospital, and when you are a decision-maker who has become an ethical vegan, you can do wonders to veganise the world.
“The hospital is called Hayek Hospital. It’s located in the suburbs of Beirut, in an area called Sin El Fil. It was constructed by my grandfather Dr Selim Hayek back in 1972. The hospital was completely destroyed twice during the Lebanese Civil War, but we always had the determination to stand on our feet again. So, we managed to build it again, and again, and again, to continue our mission, because we truly believe that owning a hospital sends the most humanitarian message.
It is a private hospital, owned by the Hayek family. In Lebanon, usually, the private sector is more important and more professional than the public sector, because, as you know, we have a lot of problems with the government, and basically the country is almost bankrupt.
We have about 60 beds, which in Lebanon is considered a medium-sized Hospital. We have all the departments all hospitals have. The only thing that we do not have is open heart surgery. But other than this, we have a dialysis department, an oncology department, we have an operating room, Pharmacy, a laboratory, a surgical floor, basically everything that a hospital can offer, minus the open heart unit.
I wanted to implement what I am preaching with Lebanese Vegans into the line of business that we own. Since we run a hospital, there is no other line of business where adopting a vegan plant-based diet is more important. My hospital — and all other hospitals — are full of patients suffering from diseases caused by eating animals and their products. I have no one patient that is suffering because he ate a lot of hummus! So, I wanted to turn the hospital vegan.
Back in 2017, I started a massive educational program and transition period as I didn’t want to cut off meat and animal products overnight. First of all, for myself, so that they would know exactly why we are doing this, and why we took the decision to transform the hospital into a vegan plant-based hospital. Then educating the nursing staff because they are the first ones to have contact with the patients so that they would know what to answer. Then educating the medical staff, the doctors, and the administration and management staff as well. All the hospital went through an intensive education program.
To be able to do this transition many conferences and training sessions were held. The very first vegan conference in Lebanon was held back in 2019 in the hospital, at the Hayek Hospital Auditorium, where we tackled the ethical side, the environmental side, and the health side of this issue. Surprisingly, it was a very successful first conference. We gathered more than 300 attendees. This motivated us to do even more.
I will not lie to you. Not all of our employees or doctors turned vegan, of course not, but at least it’s clear now to them why I took this decision. First, they were a bit hesitant and they were opposed to it, saying ‘no, it’s not a good idea.’ This is why the transition period was crucial. I didn’t want to make it a decision parachuted from above. No, I wanted to explain and educate, and education is key. Whenever you educate people on the reason why, even though they will not adapt, they would acknowledge the facts. When I present them with the fact that processed meat is classified as carcinogenic, well, if they have any complaint, they can submit their complaint to the WHO, not to me.
Not all of the patients were happy. Some of them, even though you try to educate them, they will still ask for that piece of flesh. With every meal that we offer during the day, a pamphlet is distributed which explains what is plant-based food, and how to cover all the nutrients that our body needs. So, all patients, while having their meals, are being educated at the same time.
Anything that I can turn into a vegan version, I’m doing it. For example, food is vegan, furniture is vegan, and I don’t have any more leather, silk, or fur in the hospital. I make sure the clothing is vegan as well. Whenever I have the possibility or I have control over something, I always use the vegan option.
Regarding medication, you have two problems. The first problem is the majority of the medication, if not all, has been tested on animals, so the first obstacle is there. And you have ingredients as well, like lactose and so many other animal products in the medication. This is why it’s more difficult to tackle this aspect. But if there is a specific medication alternative that might be vegan friendly, of course, I always choose this one. But today, it is still a challenge to be able to provide it, because, to my knowledge, for any medication to be approved to be sold everywhere, it should be tested on animals. Whether this medication includes animal ingredients or not, it is still tested on animals, so it is still not vegan. We try to find substitutes and hope to push things forward so that both people and industries evolve.”
Veganism in the Middle East
The first time I heard that in 2021 the first hospital that had turned vegan happened in Lebanon, I was surprised about the location. I expected to be in London, Portland, Berlin or India. But then, thinking about it, it makes perfect sense. Read on what George said when I asked him about this, and you will see what I mean:
“In the Middle East, you have this mentality — if you want to call it a cultural tradition — that eating meat is manly. This is still engraved in our society. And in Lebanon we have that mentality too, so we have some challenges regarding that. But, at the same time, what is contradictory is that I have so many people who come over to me and tell me, ‘George, you are right, it might be wrong to eat meat, but it’s very difficult to be vegan in Lebanon.’ And I answer, ‘Really! If there’s one country that is the easiest country on Earth to be vegan, it is Lebanon!’
Our natural-born food is vegan by default. If we go to any Lebanese restaurant today, we open the menu and you will see hummus and 20 or 30 other vegan dishes, and at the end, you have the barbecue skewers. Basically, in each and every Lebanese restaurant, you have vegan options. Every restaurant in Lebanon, or even the region, has vegan options, because our food, Mediterranean food, mainly relies on beans, chickpeas, hummus, sesame seeds, etc. All those foods are accessible, and they are cheap, and it’s part of our cuisine, our Lebanese and Mediterranean cuisine. So, being vegan in Lebanon it’s very easy because it’s not that you have to search for a specific restaurant either to be 100% vegan, to be vegan friendly, or to have vegan options. Here, any restaurant you look at has vegan options.”
There is also the issue of having experienced recent violent history. This makes people more empathetic to others who have been victims of oppression and violence. Their minds are already more open, and their challenge to the status quo is easy to achieve. I know this because of my upbringing in Catalonia during the Spanish dictatorship of the fascist General Franco after he won the Spanish civil war — and I believe that the higher percentage of vegans in Catalonia can be explained by this. Lebanon also experienced a long violent civil war (1975 to 1990) and other armed conflicts more recently, which may also explain why veganism is flourishing there.
“There’s the saying that says ‘it takes one to know one.’ If you’re sad you would know what sadness feels like, if you’re depressed you would know what depression feels like. When you go through difficult times in your life you would feel much more empathy than if you had lived in a society or community that didn’t have problems.
If you look at demographics, all the oppressed communities have much more positive responses to the vegan message because for a certain period of time they were oppressed. They know what it’s like to have someone over you and abuse you, and enslave you, so when they see what we are doing to those animals, they will feel empathy. I really rely on people having empathy and relating to the misery that we Lebanese people went through — and are still going through— to the misery that we are inflicting on animals.
We don’t have a monopoly over this Earth. Others have the right to live on this earth as much as I do, as much as you do, and as much as everyone does. The life of the chicken is no less important than my life, than the life of whomever, and if we really start thinking this way, I truly believe that criminality between humans will decrease. Because we experience being violent toward animals and then we apply it to humans. If the mentality changes, and from our early upbringing parents just told us that a cat and a dog have the same rights to live as a cow, a pig, or a sheep, this is when we can expect less violence between humans.
When I first started my interview with George I asked him how he wanted to be defined. A successful entrepreneur? A trailblazing business owner? A leading vegan activist? He replied that he is just a regular guy who is against unnecessary killing and who wants to live with the minimum damage to the animals and our planet. I think he is much more than that. He is someone who had some decision power and did not waste it. He is someone who truly believes that each one of us can change the world; that each one of us can change something in our lives, in our households, in our businesses, and in our communities, to get us all closer to the vegan world. He is someone who believes each one of us can turn anything into something much better, much more positive for everyone, as he has done with his hospital.
George’s actions speak louder than his words because he is leading by example.
George is a vegan-maker.