‘Our house is your house’: Locals open their homes after Beirut blast

‘Our house is your house’: Locals open their homes after Beirut blast

The massive blast that rocked Beirut in Lebanon on Tuesday left at least 300,000 people without homes. But shortly after the blast, residents started a campaign to offer their homes to those in need.

By
Shirin Jaafari

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A woman stands inside a damaged restaurant a day after an explosion hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. Residents of Beirut, — stunned, sleepless and stoic — emerged Wednesday from the aftermath of a catastrophic explosion searching for missing relatives, bandaging their wounds and retrieving what’s left of their homes. 

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Hussein Malla/AP

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A day after the massive explosion in Beirut Tuesday, residents were surveying the damage to their homes.

One video shared online showed 78-year-old Beirut resident May Melki playing the piano in what appears to be her destroyed living room. Her entire home is damaged: furniture in disarray, shattered glass everywhere, curtains ripped apart.

Images and videos out of Beirut show that buildings closest to the port, the center of the explosion, were completely leveled. Many buildings further away from the blast that remained standing were damaged and simply not safe to live in.

The governor of Beirut, Marwan Abboud, said up to 300,000 people lost their homes. He said the government is working to find them shelter.

Related: Mourning and anger amid devastation after Beirut explosion

But in the meantime, a grassroots campaign has taken shape. People in Lebanon are offering up their homes to strangers in need.

my house is open, we have an extra room for anyone who needs a place to stay!

— n🐰 (@auntie_noga) August 4, 2020

Some are using the hashtag #بيوتنا_مفتوحة, which means “our homes are open.” 

One group that used to map all the recent protests in Lebanon switched its work to focus on all the available shelters.

If anyone needs or can offer shelter, please post it below. We are building a map with all shelters.https://t.co/nR5i6vaBDr#ourhomesareopen #بيوتنا_مفتوحة

— thawramap (@thawramap) August 4, 2020

“I decided to take a personal initiative and offer my second house in the mountains far away from Beirut for people who got affected by this explosion [on Tuesday].”

Ihab Kraidly, Beirut resident

“I decided to take a personal initiative and offer my second house in the mountains far away from Beirut for people who got affected by this explosion [on Tuesday],” 29-year-old Ihab Kraidly told The World over a WhatsApp call.

Kraidly said his house in the countryside had been sitting empty for the past four months and so after the blast, he decided to offer it to those in need. A couple responded to his message online, he said.

“They told me that the damage [to their home] was horrible and it was not a place to stay even for one night.”

Related: Lebanon protests called out corruption. Now it’s about survival. 

Kraidly added that the idea of opening up one’s home to strangers in need is nothing new in Lebanon. In fact, his family stayed with others back in 2006, during the war with Israel, because Beirut wasn’t safe, he said.

“They invited us over and when we decided to leave because the war nearly ended. They said, ‘Stay for another two or three weeks.’ People here are unified, you know?”

“My offer was for all the people who are old, poor, they are welcome to the hotel on a full board basis. … You need to support people without thinking of money.” 

Wajih Chbat, owner, The Chbat Hotel

For Wajih Chbat, owner of The Chbat Hotel, providing shelter was a no-brainer. Chbat offered up six rooms in his hotel, which is located about an hour and a half outside Beirut.

“My offer was for all the people who are old, poor, they are welcome to the hotel on a full board basis,” he said, meaning that they got a place to stay and free food.

“You need to support people without thinking of money,” he said.

Soon after Chbat sent out his message, people started showing up in taxis. Some of them were injured, he said, and they came directly from the hospital.

Chbat’s business has been struggling ever since the coronavirus pandemic hit, he explained. He used to get a lot of tourists, but all that dried up. As the news of the Beirut blast spread across the globe, he said, he received phone calls from donors in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Australia who wanted to send money.

“But I did not accept [the donations] because I still have money to spend. Let them send it to people who don’t have money. When I need money, I’ll see what I will do,” Chbat said.

Related: Lebanon probes blast amid rising anger, calls for change

Christina Malkoun, a 24-year-old engineering student, said she sent out messages about two rooms that she has available 15 minutes outside the city. She heard from two women, one who has two small children and another who has no relatives in Lebanon. They ended up staying in other places closer to where they were, Malkoun said, but she is keeping the post up on social media in case there are others who need it.

“I’m trying to help with whatever I can. That’s all I can offer for now,” she said.

Since the blast, it seems everyone is trying to step up and help out any way they can, said Cynthia Saab, an interior consultant for a furniture and fabrics company in Lebanon called Skaff. Her company is offering to donate free fabric to cover up the windows that were broken in the blast.

“We are hearing from many people who really need help. … The glass in Beirut is all shattered and for people to contact a glass company, this is going to take a while, especially with this overload.”

Cynthia Saab, interior consutant, Skaff fabrics, Beirut

“We are hearing from many people who really need help,” she said. “The glass in Beirut is all shattered, and for people to contact a glass company, this is going to take a while, especially with this overload.”

Saab went through the inventory to see how much fabric they have available and told The World that the company will send out a team to measure the windows sizes and to install the fabrics.

Rebuilding Beirut will be long and painful, Malkoun said. At the moment, people are taking matters into their own hands, she added.

For example, volunteers are helping with search and rescue of victims from under the rubble. They are collecting food and clothes donations to distribute in Beirut.

“The contributions [volunteers are] making right now are much better than the contributions any political leader has made throughout the last decade. … It’s really heartwarming to see the people come together right now.”

Christina Malkoun, engineering student, Beirut

“The contributions they’re making right now are much better than the contributions any political leader has made throughout the last decade,” Malkoun said. “It’s really heartwarming to see the people come together right now.”

Some Americans feel safer in Lebanon when it comes to COVID-19 response

Some Americans feel safer in Lebanon when it comes to COVID-19 response

By
Rebecca Collard

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Lebanese demonstrators wear face masks during a protest against the collapsing Lebanese pound currency outside Lebanon’s Central Bank in Beirut, Lebanon, April 23, 2020. 

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Mohamed Azakir/Reuters 

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When the American University of Beirut in Lebanon, canceled classes in early March, Max Tamer-Mahoney jumped on a plane home to Boston, Massachusetts, to spend the unexpected break with his family. Two weeks later, he was back in Beirut, in theory just to pick up his belongings when it became clear that the semester would move online. But after a few days in Beirut, he reassessed. 

Related: Lebanon’s ‘two crises’: coronavirus and financial collapse 

“It seemed like things were going rapidly downhill in the US that it was better for me to ride it out here.”

Max Tamer-Mahoney, American livnging in Lebanon

Max Tamer-Mahoney feels safer in Lebanon than the US when it comes to COVID-19. 

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Courtesy of Max Tamer-Mahoney 

“It seemed like things were going rapidly downhill in the US that it was better for me to ride it out here,” says Mahoney, who is studying computer science and Arabic language and literature. 

“Better” is probably an understatement. Massachusetts has roughly the same population as Lebanon. But while Massachusetts has over confirmed 53,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 3,000 deaths, Lebanon has just over 700 confirmed cases and around two dozen deaths, as of April 28, 2020. 

At first, friends and family tried to convince Mahoney to return to the United States, but now almost all of them say it was the right decision to stay in Beirut. 

“My mother just told me she was unable to find chicken and toilet paper in our local supermarket,” Mahoney said. 

Mahoney is not alone. Many Americans are looking at the US and say they feel safer abroad, even in a country like Lebanon, which has suffered six months of protests and is teetering on the edge of an economic collapse.

Those protests have been mostly quiet during the lockdown, but now they are back for the third night in a row as prices are rising quickly and many Lebanese fall below the poverty line. 

Cecilia Blewer, who is from New York, has also decided to ride out the pandemic in Lebanon, rather than return to the United States.

“I wasn’t going back, because I was afraid of what was waiting at the other end, so I decided to stay here,” said Blewer, who is 64, and arrived in Lebanon in January to spend a few months studying Arabic and volunteering. 

What was waiting in New York was overcrowded hospitals, makeshift morgues and shortages of protective equipment.

“I would say to Trump, there is a Hezbollah-leaning government that has just outperformed you by a thousand times. Take that on board.”

Cecilia Blewer, American living in Lebanon

Blewer said that in Lebanon, despite months of protests, a fractured government and a looming financial collapse, the government’s handling of the crisis is much better than the US. “[The Lebanese] understand that God throws curveballs,” Blewer said. “I would say to Trump, there is a Hezbollah-leaning government that has just outperformed you by a thousand times. Take that on board.”

Related: Hezbollah’s latest front line? The fight against coronavirus.

Other Americans point to the high cost of repatriation flights and the fact that some Americans won’t have health insurance if they go back to the US — which has one of the world’s most expensive health care systems. Many Americans living abroad have health insurance that covers every country except their own because of international policies that cover the US are more expensive. While Lebanon’s health system is highly privatized and suffering from the economic crisis, many expats are in a privileged position, with resources or health insurance here that will get access to good health care. 

Lebanon has been under a state of medical emergency since March 15. Technically, people are not supposed to leave the house unless absolutely necessary. The curfew begins at sunset and security forces come out to enforce it. Everyone in supermarkets wears masks and gloves — shoppers and employees alike. Customers have their temperature checked before they can enter. One chain even set up what they call “sani-tunnels” at the entrances, insisting customers pass through a corridor of spay disinfectant to enter. 

Related: How Lebanon’s ‘WhatsApp tax’ unleashed a flood of anger

“Lebanon was on this much sooner than the US,” said Dr. Madelynn Azar-Cavanagh, an American physician who has worked with hospitals in the US to help them prepare for infectious disease outbreaks. She happened to be in Lebanon visiting her brother when the pandemic broke out. Azar-Cavanagh was supposed to fly back to Boston in March, but she said that by then, it was already clear she was better off staying in Lebanon. 

“Starting about March 8, you started to see the restaurants close down, bars closing down, and eventually, they did a hard lockdown where only groceries and pharmacies were open,” Azar-Cavanagh said. Lebanon’s curve flattened much more quickly than the US, and the country has already started easing restrictions. 

Dr. Sasha Fahme decided to return to New York City from Beirut in March. 

Credit:

Courtesy of Dr. Sasha Fahme 

Dr. Sasha Fahme went the opposite direction, deciding to return to New York City from Beirut in March. 

“I returned to the US out of a sense of moral obligation,” said Fahme, a physician and a researcher who has been taking care of patients hospitalized with severe COVID-19 illness since she returned. 

Fahme said it’s hard to say what’s “safer,” but that in both New York City and Beirut, certain populations are going to suffer more than others.

“For people that are in a position of privilege in Lebanon, then certainly it might be safer,” she said. “But I think that’s true for people that are in a position of privilege everywhere.”

Lebanon hosts more than 1.5 million refugees, mostly Syrian and Palestinian. Some live in informal camps, others in equally overcrowded urban neighborhoods. And almost 50% of Lebanese live below the poverty line — sometimes in conditions not much better than the camps.

“The ability to social distance, in and of itself, is a privilege,” said Fahme. “It is impossible to enforce social distancing in a refugee camp.”

If the virus spreads in those settings, it will be a catastrophe. So far, that seems to have been averted. But Fahme also pointed out that testing is at a much lower rate in Lebanon than the US, meaning the numbers may be deceiving.

But even anecdotally, Lebanon is faring much better — for now, at least. There is no shortage of protective equipment, no makeshift morgues or health care workers facing tough decisions about triage.

Mahoney blamed what he calls the “anti-science” tone of the Trump administration for how poorly things are going in the US, and says Lebanon has just handled the crisis much better. 

“[When] a so-called global superpower such as the US is struggling — in comparison — to protect its people, it’s really, really a shame,” Mahoney said.