BEIRUT – On Tuesday, August 4, 2020, at 06:07 pm, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded and shook the Lebanese capital of Beirut, devastating entire neighborhoods. Right after, Asmar Nayef went to the affected areas to dig people out of the rubble. Half an hour later, Ahmad al-Qasir offered a place in his house to those who had lost theirs due to the explosion. And two hours later, Firas al-Gadban drove from the Beqaa Valley, in eastern Lebanon, to Beirut with his medical team.
They are all Syrians who escaped the Syrian war and sought refuge in Lebanon. In the aftermath of the most devastating explosion that Beirut has ever known, Syrians are shoulder to shoulder with Lebanese, Palestinian and other non-Lebanese neighbors on the frontlines: cleaning the streets, offering shelter, food and medical help.
The Lebanese authorities have launched an investigation to inquire why the ammonium nitrate was stored for six years in the port of Beirut. But Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have demanded an “independent international investigation” into the origin of the blast that has claimed the lives of 137 people and left 5,000 injured so far.
A new soundtrack for Beirut
Forty-eight hours after the explosion, smoke still steams out of the epicenter of the blast in the port and some cars remain marked with blood. On Thursday, in spite of the hot weather and humidity, the streets of Mar Mikhael – one of the most affected neighborhoods – were full of people carrying brooms and shovels for rubble removal.
One of them is Jihad al-Masri, a 31-year-old Syrian originally from the central city of Hama who came to Lebanon in 2017. He is a mathematics teacher in Tell Abaya, in the Beqaa Valley, and a volunteer with the NGO Basmeh & Zeitooneh. “As Syrians, we understand that this is our duty. We came here [Lebanon] escaping from similar pain; we share the same pain.” Together with his group of ten volunteers, they clean Gouraud Street, the artery of the neighborhoods situated alongside the Beirut port.
That street ends at Martyrs Square, the epicenter of the Lebanese revolution that broke out last October against the ruling political elite. Under a tent sits Firas al-Gadban, a 35-year-old doctor originally from the city of Zabadani, in the countryside of Damascus. He is the Medical Director of Endless Medical Advantage (EMA), an organization that runs a primary healthcare clinic in the Beqaa Valley.
The same evening of the explosion, their 5-member team drove two hours to Beirut to help the Civilian Defense and the Red Cross. “We went to Mar Mikhael where we saw two people under the rubble of a destroyed building, but we could not do anything for them. I was very scared, there were a lot of injured people,” Firas recalled. The EMA team also coordinated blood donations at hospitals. Firas escaped the Syrian war in 2017, but he felt all of its troubling memories come back as he walked the devastated streets of Beirut. “It was the same destruction as Syria, my mind went back to these days when we lost our friends and family, when we saw the people screaming, just the same scenes,” he told Syria Direct.
On Tuesday, the team treated cuts and wounds. On Thursday, they were just helping people with blood pressure problems and dizziness. “Yesterday was better than Tuesday and today is better than yesterday,” Firas said. His team is now treating primary health issues because Beirut hospitals “cannot take any patients now”, he added. Two hospitals, the American University of Beirut Medical Center and the Saint George Hospital, have seen their buildings damaged by the explosion. “They sent many patients to Saida, Beqaa and Tripoli, and doctors came from other cities to help, but they will run out of supplies soon, they need donations,” Firas alerted. The Lebanese hospitals were already under strain due to the electricity cuts, unpaid dues of the government and scarcity of medical material due to the difficulty in importing – given the plummeting of the national currency.
After examining ten patients, Firas takes a break and talks with his friend Asmar Nayef, a 23-year-old Syrian from the countryside of Halab who came to Beirut in 2013. At the moment of the explosion, Asmar was at his house in Mar Elias in the southern skirts of Beirut. “The house trembled, I felt the ground moving. It reminded me of the first time I heard an explosion during the Syrian war.” Due to his experience during the Syrian war, Asmar said, he knew the explosion was far, “if the explosion is close you will not hear it.”
Right after the blast, he went with a group of friends to the port to help rescue people trapped under the rubble. He has been working on the streets since then. On Thursday morning, he helped remove rubble from Saint Georges Hospital and, after a nap, planned to come back at night. “I will be here until we clean all Beirut and help all those in need,” he said.
Asmar could not finish his university studies in Beirut because he had to work to support his family. Due to the economic crisis, he has been unemployed for five months. The World Food Programme estimates that 1.2 million Syrian refugees – out of the 1.5 million living in Lebanon - survive on less than $2.9 per day, and the World Bank expects that the rate of people living in extreme poverty in Lebanon in 2020 will rise to 45 percent. Adding to this dire situation, the port explosion has caused damages exceeding $5 billion.
The blast has left some buildings without balconies and windows, and has reduced others to rubble. One wall of a restaurant at the heart of Gemmayzeh neighbourhood remains intact; the one with a mural of Fayrouz, the famous Lebanese singer who dedicated a love song to the Lebanese capital called “For Beirut.”
The soundtrack of Beirut these days is the sound of dozens of people sweeping up broken windows and the voices of volunteers offering water bottles and manousheh (a Lebanese flatbread) to the cleaning teams.
Far from Beirut, in the northern city of Tripoli, Ahmad al-Qasir has offered his house to “my Lebanese brothers and the Syrians living in Beirut affected by the explosion.” This Syrian, originally from the town of al-Qusayr in the countryside of Homs, decided to offer a place at his home just half an hour after the explosion.
All around Lebanon, initiatives to shelter the estimated 250,000 people that have lost their homes are mushrooming, from a map showing the shelters, Instagram posts and even a website called BeirutHomeFinder. “Some Syrian refugees from Beqaa and Tripoli welcomed the idea of opening their houses. Those who cannot do that are donating blood, distributing food or offering to do repair work at houses,” Ahmad explained.
“We are all one, our pain is one”
The estimated 1.5 million Syrians living in Lebanon – a country of 6 million – have endured discriminatory policies and structural racism since they sought refuge in this country after the outbreak of the Syrian war. But Jihad said that these ‘bad people’ did not represent Lebanon. “We suffer some racism from Lebanese people but we are brothers after all. Of course, we came here today to help. We are Arabs, we are all one, our pain is one,” he said. Firas agreed that they have “not always felt welcomed” but “it is about humanity, more than Lebanese and Syrian, it is our duty, we need each other.”
“This shows that we are all human. It is a way of going against racism,” added Asmar. “After all, Beirut is ‘Um al-Alam’, the mother of the world,” this young Syrian said with a sad smile.