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Insights from the ground: How local NGOs lead the Beirut blast response and how you can help

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

By Anne Bauer - September 28th

Almost two months after the deadly explosion that ripped through Lebanon’s capital, walking the streets of Beirut still feels like a visit to the graveyard. The once so lively city center with its hip bars, restaurants and shops which were popular with tourists and residents alike is unrecognizable. Although most large debris and rubble has been removed in the days after the explosion, the view that presents itself still reminds of a war zone: in itself collapsed buildings, houses with entire facades broken down, windows and doors largely gone, loose electric cables and poles hanging everywhere, army patrolling the streets, and, for those that stop for a second and look closer, personal belongings, clothes, books and pictures scattered between the rubble and dust. They serve as a cruel reminder that not to long ago those ruins have been the fondly decorated homes of the Beiruti residents, 300000 of which are now homeless.

Four weeks after the explosion Beirut’s Mar Mikhael neighbourhood still lies in pieces

In midst of all of this and in boiling 35 degrees, I’m making my way towards a small section that has been demarcated by the army for a number of relief aid organizations which set up tents, tables and chairs. As soon as I enter I have to cross sides to avoid a pushing and shoving crowd of people gathering around a truck from which aid workers throw food packages. I’m on the lookout for one particular tent from the organization Volunteers without Borders. Mahmoud Alzulhof, a volunteer and board member, is waiting for me there together with three other volunteers. Despite the extreme noise that comes from the reconstruction work on the opposite building, we sit down and Mahmoud starts telling me about how the organization has responded to the horrific blast that hit Beirut almost two months ago.

Anne Bauer meets Volunteers Without Borders

Originally founded in 2010, the organization was set up to support the most vulnerable and poorest in Lebanon’s society, however, since the August 4th, the organization has rushed to provide urgently needed relief aid in the immediate aftermath of the Beirut explosion. Mahmoud starts showing me pictures. Members of the organization from across Lebanon came together to start removing heavy rubble, debris, glass and stones from the streets of Beirut, trying get a first understanding of the damage that the explosion has caused to their beloved capital.

Clearing up debris in the days after the explosion

Which turned out to be beyond imagination. Not only the centrally located nightlife and tourist area of Beirut had been completely destroyed but also many adjacent residential areas which had already been in an extremely poor state before. Therefore, as an immediate relief response, Volunteers Without Borders decided to split up in teams in order to assess the damage and distribute donations also in those areas that were covered less by other NGOs as well as media. Highest priority was given to securing homes by repairing windows and doors as break-ins and robberies spiked in the days after the explosion.

Volunteers Without Borders assessing damage

However, Lebanon had not only suffered one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions ever recorded; fact is that within less than one year, Lebanon had seen devastating wildfires, the start of a revolution, a pandemic and the total collapse of its economy. Now, all of this poses major obstacles on all fronts of humanitarian work. There is a food shortage due to the total destruction of Lebanon’s main port and grain silos. There is a lack of medicine and health care supplies, not only due to the heavy damages caused to Beirut’s hospitals but also due to new infections with the Corona virus, which had been skyrocketing since August 4th. There is an on-going political crisis which even in days of national mourning and collective suffering seems to be separate the population along deeply rooted ethnic and religious divides. In addition, reoccurring violent demonstrations as well as open street shooting time and again stir up past memories and fears of a new civil war. Plus, on top of all of this, there is the extreme devaluation of the local currency, rise of prices, as well as bank-imposed capital controls that limit the withdrawal and transfer of dollars, making it largely impossible for local NGOs to operate effectively. All of this comes in a time where civil society is virtually the only force out in the streets trying to provide relief to citizens wherever possible. NGOs, grassroots movements, and private initiatives are leading the Beirut blast response. They are forced to do so in a desperate attempt to fill the total void their corrupt and unresponsive government as left them with.

Back to Volunteers Without Borders. For the experienced organization, which traditionally has worked in the most marginalized areas around Lebanon, this has essentially meant that all of Beirut has now become their focus area and that aid, in whatever form, needs to be provided fast on all fronts. Therefore, in addition to repairing homes, basic goods such as warm meals and hygienic products were distributed. most of it donated by Lebanese.

Donations distributed by Volunteers Without Borders

Yet, given that even the most well-off Lebanese are facing extremely dire situation, local supply of good and donations are limited. Actually, donations have been dramatically decreasing in the weeks after the explosion. While Volunteers Without Borders has no lack of qualified members, ranging from doctors, lawyers and psychologist to electricians, engineers and carpenters, what they are lacking most nowadays is the material and products without which the reconstruction of Beirut cannot take place. Lebanon largely depends on imported goods, but the steep devaluation of the local currency has made it almost impossible to afford such urgently needed products.

By the end of my meeting with Volunteers Without Borders, Mahmoud shows me a list of people who had come by their tent to file a request for support. He reads to me: Hiba, four kids, husband died in explosion, needs new home. Ahmad, got heavily injured, without work, needs hole in ceiling fixed, no windows or doors. The list goes on but Mahmoud stops here. “Those are cases from the past few days which we haven’t been able to process yet. We’re simply lacking the funds to deal with all of the requests that are still coming in daily. So all we can do is tell the people to fill out this form and leave their phone numbers so we can contact them as soon as we get more donations. It is painful to send them away but unfortunately there’s nothing more we can do at this moment.”

In face of this, Interact has decided to support Volunteers Without Borders in their endeavor to rebuild Beirut and provide inclusive support to all its residents. You can donate to the initiative by clicking here

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