In Beirut’s beloved bar districts, hundreds of young Lebanese ditched beers for brooms on Wednesday to sweep debris in the absence of a state-sponsored cleanup operation following a deadly blast.
“What state?” scoffed 42-year-old Melissa Fadlallah, a volunteer cleaning up the hard-hit Mar Mikhail district of the Lebanese capital.
The explosion, which hit just a few hundred metres (yards) away at Beirut’s port, blew all the windows and doors off Mar Mikhail’s pubs, restaurants and apartment homes on Tuesday.
By Wednesday, a spontaneous cleanup operation was underway there, a glimmer of youthful solidarity and hope after a devastating night.
Wearing plastic gloves and a mask, Fadlallah tossed a shard of glass as long as her arm at the door of the state electricity company’s administrative building that looms over the district.
“For me, this state is a dump — and on behalf of yesterday’s victims, the dump that killed them is going to stay a dump,” she told AFP.
The blast killed more than 110 people, wounded thousands and compounded public anger that erupted in protests last year against a government seen as corrupt and inefficient.
“We’re trying to fix this country. We’ve been trying to fix it for nine months but now we’re going to do it our way,” said Fadlallah.
“If we had a real state, it would have been in the street since last night cleaning and working. Where are they?”
A few civil defence workers could be seen examining building structures but they were vastly outnumbered by young volunteers flooding the streets to help.
In small groups, they energetically swept up glass beneath blown-out buildings, dragging them into plastic bags.
Others clambered up debris-strewn stairwells to offer their homes to residents who had spent the previous night in the open air.
“We’re sending people into the damaged homes of the elderly and handicapped to help them find a home for tonight,” said Husam Abu Nasr, a 30-year-old volunteer.
“We don’t have a state to take these steps, so we took matters into our own hands,” he said.
Towns across the country have offered to host Beirut families with damaged homes and the Maronite Catholic patriarchate announced it would open its monasteries and religious schools to those needing shelter.
Food was quickly taken care of, too: plastic tables loaded with donated water bottles, sandwiches and snacks were set up within hours.
“I can’t help by carrying things, so we brought food, water, chocolate and moral support,” said Rita Ferzli, 26.
“I think everyone should be here helping, especially young people. No one should be sitting at home — even a smile is helping right now.”
Business owners swiftly took to social media, posting offers to repair doors, paint damaged walls or replace shattered windows for free.
Abdo Amer, who owns window company Curtain Glass, said he was moved to make such an offer after narrowly surviving the blast.
“I had driven by the port just three minutes earlier,” the 37-year-old said.
He offered to replace windows for half the price, but said he was fixing some for free given the devastating situation for many families following the Lebanese currency’s staggering devaluation in recent months.
“I’ve gotten more than 7,000 phone calls today and I can’t keep up,” said the father of four.
“You think the state will take up this work? Actually, let them step down and leave.”
Outrage at the government was palpable among volunteers, many of whom blamed government officials for failing to remove explosive materials left at the port for years.
“They’re all sitting in their chairs in the AC while people are wearing themselves out in the street,” said Mohammad Suyur, 30, as he helped sweep on Wednesday.
“The last thing in the world they care about is this country and the people who live in it.”
He said activists were preparing to reignite the protest movement that launched in October.
“We can’t bear more than this. This is it. The whole system has got to go,” he said.
Lebanon’s diaspora mobilises
Lebanon’s diaspora, estimated at nearly three times the size of the tiny country’s populatio of five million, has stepped up to provide assistance following the massive explosion that laid waste to the capital Beirut.
Lebanese expats rushed to wire money to loved ones who lost their homes or were injured in the blast on Tuesday that killed at least 113 people, while others worked to create special funds to address the tragedy.
“I’ve been on the phone all morning with … our partners in order to put together an alliance for an emergency fund in light of the explosion,” said George Akiki, co-founder and CEO of LebNet, a non-profit based in California’s Silicon Valley that helps Lebanese professionals in the United States and Canada. “Everyone, both Lebanese and non-Lebanese, wants to help.”
Akiki said his group, along with other organizations such as SEAL and Life Lebanon, have set up Beirut Emergency Fund 2020, which will raise much-needed money and channel it to safe and reputable organizations in Lebanon.
Many Lebanese expats, who almost all have loved ones or friends impacted by the disaster, are also helping individually or have started online fundraisers.
“As a first step, my wife Hala and I will match at least $10,000 in donations and later on we will provide more help towards rebuilding and other projects,” Habib Haddad, a tech entrepreneur and member of LebNet based in Boston, Massachusetts, told AFP.
He said many fellow compatriots are doing the same, channeling their grief and anger toward helping their stricken homeland, which before the blast was already reeling from a deep economic and political crisis that has left more than half the population living in poverty.
“They’re asking Lebanese emigrants around the world to try and help,” said Maroun Daccache, owner of a Lebanese restaurant in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a country that has an estimated seven million people of Lebanese descent.
“I’m trying to help with something but here the business is not very good because of the pandemic. Still, we are much better off than those over there,” Daccache said.
Even before the tragedy, Lebanon heavily relied on its diaspora for cash remittances but these inflows had slowed in the last year given the country’s political crisis.
Expats also usually visit home every summer, injecting much-needed cash into the economy. But the diaspora this year has largely been absent because of the Covid-19 pandemic and many had become increasingly skeptical and reluctant to send aid to a country where corruption is widespread and permeates all levels of society.
“People are outraged by the mismanagement of the country and they want to help, but no one trusts the people in charge,” said Najib Khoury-Haddad, a tech entrepreneur in the San Francisco area, echoing the feeling of many Lebanese leery of giving money to a dysfunctional government.
“I heard that the government has set up a relief fund but who would trust them?” he added.
Ghislaine Khairalla, 55, of Washington DC, said one idea being floated was to pair a needy family in Beirut with one outside the country that could provide a safe and direct source of assistance.
“We (the diaspora) are the financial bloodline especially since the economy is not going to recover anytime soon,” Khairalla, whose brother’s home was reduced to rubble by the blast, said. “And we are lucky to have a kind of stable life here. We are physically outside Lebanon but our hearts and emotions are there.”
Nayla Habib, a Lebanese-Canadian who lives in Montreal, said she planned to help in whatever way she can and expressed outrage at reports that the blast was caused by more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the Beirut port, which is located in the heart of the densely populated city.
“My God, the state of our country is terrible and heartbreaking,” Habib told AFP. “I donated before the blast to a lady that helps feed the poor and I will donate again.
“Whatever I give is like a drop in the ocean but it’s necessary,” she added. “I live in Canada but part of my heart is still there.”