Stories From the Field: Beirut on its Knees

Darine Tawk works as a project coordinator in CNEWA’s office in Beirut.

Gemmayze, with its historic buildings, is a popular neighborhood known for its cafes and nightlife. Many of its buildings overlook the port of Beirut, where people were standing on their balconies or near their windows before the blast struck. The area was full of restaurants, young Lebanese who had travelled and brought back cuisine from around the world. There were art galleries, too. It was a testing ground for entrepreneurs and dreamers; it was like any street in a cosmopolitan city, but it had a distinct neighborhood feel.

Now, when you walk through Beirut streets, death is all you see: shattered buildings, glasses and windows, where people were supposed to feel safe, in their own houses.

Our first home visit shed light on a damaged house that needed urgent work on its windows. The ceiling and walls were also cracked and needed treatment. Eliane, is a mother of two living in the poor affected area of Rmeil–Achrafieh, near where the blast occurred. Given the circumstances and her hard financial situation, Eliane can’t afford to repair her windows and cracked walls. “My disappointment in my government is so huge” she says. “No one came and asked about us here, only private organizations are doing the government’s job on the ground!”

In the area, CNEWA is coordinating with its on-ground partner, the Société of Saint Vincent De Paul, which from the first days of the crisis was present, assessing all emergency and relief needs in the affected areas (Rmeil, Gemmayze and mar Mkhayel), neighborhoods where people were already suffering from the bad economy.

The next home visit was with Lamis and her father Mohammad, a family of six living in a small house in Rmeil that consists of a living room, a kitchen and a bathroom. All live and sleep in the same room. The damage was limited to the windows and a refrigerator. Mohammad used to work at the Port of Beirut; luckily, he was not there, but because of the explosion he lost his job, the only family income.

Back on Mar Mekhayel Street, there are houses without roofs where families risk their lives sleeping behind cracked walls. Ramzieh is a 70-year-old widow living alone and taking care of her younger sister who suffers from a mental illness. Mar Mekhayel Street in known for its bars and loud music — it’s a place every Lebanese knows. Ramzieh lives just behind one of these bars, where the bedroom, kitchen and living room are all separated by an alleyway. The blast destroyed the roof of the kitchen and cracked the walls in the living room and bedroom where her ill sister was sleeping.

“I only want to live in dignity,” Ramzieh says. “I never had any help from my government, but thanks to you, I am having a roof over my head again.”

In Geitaoui-Achrafieh, you find the Immaculate Conception School, about a mile from the blast site. Sister Marleine Youssef, the school’s director, tells CNEWA what she experienced.

“I was a mile away,” she explains. “When the explosion took place, I was on the roof. When I heard that there is an explosion and not an ordinary fire, I ran shouting to the Virgin Mary ‘Save me, I do not know what to do!’”    

She continues: “I found the elevator waiting for me on the fourth floor. It stopped between the floors. I was stuck, I prayed to the Virgin. I could hear the cries in the area. I knew then that the loss was enormous. I was stuck in the elevator for 20 minutes and the screams didn’t stop. When the doors opened, I found out what was going on around me. It was a shock. I cried out with all my heart, ‘Oh my soul, I deliver you into the hands of the Lord.’ It’s worse than war!”

The explosion devastated classrooms, buildings and four floors. The Daughters of Charity lost a great soul, Sister Sophie, who was found amid the rubble.

The Besancon Sisters School in Minet el Hosn in downtown Beirut was also damaged. Sister Mirna Farah, the school’s director, describes what she experienced.  “A huge explosion blew away windows, doors, and ripped walls and roofs,” she says. “Five seconds were enough to stop time and take us 100 years back. We are still in shock, traumatized. The heavily affected districts of Mar Mikhael and Achrafieh resemble a scene of war, disasters, ruins, burned cars, people injured…”

People on the ground are working to help a wounded Beirut. They are standing together to help everyone in need as one big family. They want to help our beloved Beirut rise from the ashes again.

Fouad is a volunteer who is helping clean the rubble from the street. “Beirut’s lifeline to the world has literally and metaphorically been destroyed,” he says. “Lebanese people saw there was a need on the ground. They all came down, hand-in-hand and united to help the people whose houses had been impacted.”

But he adds:

“I don’t think Beirut will be the same after this.”

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