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Local groups step up to lead Beirut blast response

‘We are doing what the rulers should be doing.’

Volunteers clean up the damage in Beirut
Volunteers clean up the damage in Beirut a few days after the port explosion. (Thomas Devenyi/Hans Lucas/Reuters)

While attention has focused on promises of international aid from a France-led donor conference and a UN appeal, much of the initial help in the two weeks since a massive explosion in Beirut has been provided by Lebanese themselves – by ad hoc efforts, established NGOs, and groups set up months ago to help deal with a deep economic crisis that has left more and more people in crippling poverty.

In the hours after the port blast that destroyed large swathes of the capital, leaving more than 220 people dead and 6,000 wounded, Lebanese volunteers rushed to pull people from collapsed homes, carry the injured to hospitals, and set up makeshift clinics to take the burden off overwhelmed emergency rooms.

The day after the 4 August blast, it felt like all of Beirut had descended on the eastern neighbourhoods that saw the most damage, bringing with them brooms and shovels to clear the debris.

Teams of volunteers arrived with sandwiches and water only to find that others had already distributed the same things. Multiple social media pages popped up to coordinate offers of housing for those displaced, most of whom are now staying with family, friends, neighbours, and host families. 

Lebanon has a highly active civil society, with thousands of NGOs registered with the state alongside other informal initiatives. Activists and officials say this thriving community has evolved due to the same shortcomings that allowed the explosion to take place: a dysfunctional state that has often failed to provide for its people – in this case ignoring repeated warnings about the presence of thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate unsafely stored at the port. 

Formed in March to support vulnerable families during the economic crisis that began in September 2019, a group called Tadamon al-Ness (“People’s Solidarity” in Arabic), already had some 4,000 volunteers on call when the blast happened. 

Rita Tannoury, a member of the collective, said that meant they were ready to respond quickly. “We organised volunteer groups to help,” distributing food and other aid, and going door to door to see what people needed, she told The New Humanitarian.

Tadamon al-Ness has fundraised online to support its efforts, and Tannoury said larger aid groups have used their local knowledge and access to get aid out. “For example, a charity that wants to distribute food parcels would come to us to help them distribute to the different households in need and so on,” she explained.

Early on, before the Lebanese army began to help hand out aid, groups like this were already knocking on doors. “We are doing what the rulers should be doing,” Tannoury said. “There was never any official institution or any state entity doing anything on the ground. Not at all.”

“Leave us without rulers. Maybe it would be better.”

Gisele Nader, a volunteer with the Dafa Campaign, an aid group formed seven years ago by social activist and former MP Paula Yacoubian to distribute food and clothing to needy families, said Lebanese people take better care of each other than their government does.

Nader, who helped to coordinate dozens of volunteers to deliver food boxes and other supplies to survivors the day after the blast, said her country’s political leaders “have been here for 30 years and they don’t know how to work properly”.

“Let them leave us alone,” she said. “Leave us without rulers. Maybe it would be better.”

Government gaps

Assem Abi Ali, an adviser to the minister of social affairs who has been working on the government’s response to the explosion, acknowledged that local groups have played a key role in responding to the blast, as well as to previous problems. He told TNH that because of “the inability of the government throughout the past years to provide the necessary support to the people, much of the support was given by the civil society… to fill the gap.”

Following mass protests in the aftermath of the explosion, the entire Lebanese cabinet and its prime minister resigned, but they will stay on in a caretaker capacity. Abi Ali said that given the ongoing financial crisis and the presence of around 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country, “the Lebanese government definitely needs help and support from the international community and civil society.”

Severine Rey, head of the Lebanon office of OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, said she had been “extraordinarily impressed” by the civil society response to the blast.

“The first responders are always the people who are there, whatever the crisis," Rey said. “I think what is very interesting in Lebanon is that it’s somewhat structured… What is very interesting and rich here in Lebanon is that you actually have a lot of organisations… that are extraordinarily well established.”

As international aid agencies began to ramp up their activities, Rey said they had benefited from the knowledge of local NGOs.

“For us, it’s really been great to capitalise on the knowledge and this large and vast network of organisations who are grassroots, and a lot of them have been operating in Lebanon for over 50 years,” she said. “They have the knowledge of the communities which we don’t necessarily have.”

Diverse needs and response

Those who turned out to help have come from various parts of Lebanese society, including the Syrian refugees who arrived since the beginning of their country's war in 2011, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who have lived in the country for decades.

Palestinian civil defense volunteers joined Lebanese teams in rescuing victims trapped under collapsed buildings. Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, which function mostly as self-governing entities, have their own volunteer firefighting and emergency medical response teams. 

Syrians, Palestinians, and migrant workers from various countries helped clear glass from the streets, distribute aid boxes, and provide mobile medical services.

In some cases, non-Lebanese volunteers have been assisting their own communities, who also suffered injuries and losses: According to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, at least 34 refugees died in the blast. 

For example, Egna Legna Besidet, a mutual aid group formed by Ethiopian workers, has been bringing food, mattresses, and sanitation supplies to migrant workers displaced by the explosion.

But non-Lebanese have also been helping Lebanese, even between communities with historic tensions. A group of about 45 young Palestinians with the NGO Al Jana (“The Harvest,” also known as the Arab Resource Center for Popular Arts), which normally focuses on promoting arts and culture in Palestinian and other marginalised communities, came daily to clean glass and debris in neighbourhoods like Gemmayzeh, Mar Mikhael, and Geitawi – hard-hit parts of the predominantly Christian east of the city that was a stronghold of anti-Palestinian militias during the country’s 1975-1990 civil war.

Basma Faqir, a second-year political science student and Palestinian refugee, said she had come out to help because, “it’s a human disaster, and no person can be happy about that.” She was among a group of people sweeping glass into piles and carrying it out in bags from a heavily damaged apartment building in Geitawi. In a situation like this, Faqir said, “We can’t say, ‘he’s Lebanese, let him take care of his own problems’.”

While Faqir said her group had been met with only gratitude and respect from local residents, reports of discrimination have clouded some relief efforts. The Lebanese Center for Human Rights issued a statement saying it had documented incidents in which people were refused assistance based on their nationality or religious sect. Lebanon’s Anti-Racism Movement, which advocates for the rights of migrant workers, noted that “witnesses… reported violence against Syrians by volunteers in different locations and the Internal Security Forces asking volunteers for their IDs while they were cleaning the rubble.”

Still, Feras Alghadban, a Syrian doctor with the NGO Endless Medical Advantage who volunteered mobile clinic services to blast victims, said ugly incidents were outweighed by countless examples of solidarity.

“Of course, there were some racist attitudes, but I consider them very few,” Alghabdan told TNH. “On the contrary, people were very grateful and very much liked seeing that Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians, and all the nationalities present on this land are helping each other.”

Lebanese ‘resilience’?

On Friday, the UN appealed for $565 million to help Lebanon deal with the impact of the blast. But it’s not clear how much donors will be willing to give, given their own COVID-19 related financial troubles and concerns that some money will be channelled through allegedly corrupt Lebanese authorities.

It is also uncertain how easy it will be for the more informal groups to continue operating in Beirut, which the government declared to be in a state of emergency for much of August – a move that is subject to renewal. The decision alarmed human rights lawyers and organisations because the emergency law gives the army a laundry list of powers, from raiding homes, censoring the media, and imposing curfews, to closing gatherings they deem a security threat.

Tannoury of Tadamon al-Ness said a lack of clarity about which powers would actually be used has made her volunteer efforts more difficult. “We didn’t know what to expect and what we were expected to do,” she told TNH. “We’re trying to find a solution, [but] there are still many question marks surrounding the situation.”

On 14 August, the Beirut governorate decided that humanitarian organisations and volunteers would need army-issued permits to operate, a decision that has since been walked back after an apparent intervention from the UN. A source from the governorate told TNH that organisations would now simply have to “sign in” with the Beirut municipality. 

“We’re trying to find a solution, but there are still many question marks surrounding the situation.”

Even if and when foreign funders and NGOs ramp up, local groups say they are determined to keep going, albeit with limited resources: “The disaster is going to cost so much money,” Tannoury said. “Our ability is limited, though we are growing.”

This sort of intervention, without state assistance, is often characterised as “Lebanese resilience”: a determination to carry on despite ongoing crises and systemic neglect. But some question to what extent this quality – which Lebanese have had to rely on through many times of trouble – is sustainable, especially with no signs of economic recovery visible on the horizon.

Léa Yammine, deputy director of Lebanon Support, an organisation that aims to bridge knowledge and research gaps in civil society, told TNH that the idea of “Lebanese resilience” can be counter-productive to solving urgent problems.

"I feel that this whole narrative only serves to maintain the political system in place; that’s the only thing that’s resilient in Lebanon,” she said, although she added that it was “definitely heartening” to see people coming together as they have since the blast. “If resilience is to exist in Lebanon, I think it should translate into resilient long-term political action that doesn’t perpetuate the status quo.”

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