Lebanon's NGOs 'overwhelmed' 6 months after deadly Beirut explosion

Nohad Al-Mir, a secretary, standing in her damaged home.(Photo: CAFOD)

The fallout of the massive explosion that rocked Beirut last August is still presenting many challenges - challenges that have only been compounded by Covid-19 and an ongoing economic crisis.

Over 200 people died and over 7,000 were injured when a store of ammonium nitrate at the city's port exploded on 4 August 2020, destroying homes, shops and livelihoods.

Those affected include Majid Zaarour, who came to Beirut as a refugee with his family from Syria 10 years ago. His wife was injured in the blast and his home damaged. 

He has received financial assistance from Christian Aid's local partner Association Najdeh thanks to funding from the Scottish Government's Humaniterian Emergency Fund.

The cash boost has helped him to pay the rent and buy essentials like food, but his children are still traumatised.

"My children aren't able to forget the sound of the explosion, when they hear any sound or noise around us, immediately they remember what happened ... even my little son is now having speech problems," he said.

While local NGOs are working hard to support families affected by the crisis and help them rebuild their livelihoods, Christian Aid has warned that the "needs are immense".

Fadi Halisso is co-director of Christian Aid partner Basmeh & Zeitooneh, an NGO dedicated to helping the 1.5 million Syrians seeking refuge in Lebanon.

The organisation has been handing out emergency kits packages, including cash, hygiene kits and food, to hundreds of vulnerable households, including for the first time many Lebanese.

He says the organisation has been "overwhelmed with requests" after people affected by the explosion started turning to the NGO for help.

"We are overwhelmed with requests: recently we've received requests from an average of 10,000 families a month, for food and basic hygiene items," he said.

"Mothers are telling us that they are feeding their babies watered-down tea, as they cannot afford milk or baby formula. Many families who have been out of work for months are barely eating, they send us pictures of their empty kitchen shelves. It's heartbreaking.

"While we continue to help Syrian refugees, about half of those asking for assistance in recent months have been Lebanese citizens.

"Before, it was rare to find Lebanese families asking for help with such basic needs. Now, even households who were managing before are hurting."

Majid Zaarour says his children are still traumatised.(Photo: Christian Aid)

The challenges have only been compounded by the pandemic, with the country plunged into yet another lockdown on 14 January that even barred residents from going grocery shopping.

"On top of widespread unemployment and skyrocketing food prices, the explosion in Covid-19 cases has completely overwhelmed Lebanon's hospitals, and this is also hurting the poorest the most," said Halisso.

"Intensive care units are full, and there are dire shortages of hospital beds, essential drugs, oxygen therapy devices, ventilators, and medical staff."

Hombeline Dulière, Emergency Programme Manager at Catholic aid agency CAFOD, who lives in Beirut, said: "The current situation in Lebanon is devastating.

"With the announcement that the country was going into full lockdown – with even essential food shops closing and a strict curfew in place – people were beginning to panic.

"These measures, that were meant to help, have only gone to exacerbate the already fragile situation."

Even before the pandemic, Lebanon was heading for crisis, with unemployment at over a quarter of the population and a third of the country living below the poverty line.

"We are doing everything we can, getting food to poor families and working with medical organisations to make oxygen therapy accessible to people suffering from Covid-19. But the roots of Lebanon's ongoing crisis are political," said Halisso.

"People cannot be kept under curfew indefinitely with no government support. Lebanon's government and politicians must find solutions – and that will need continued pressure from abroad, as well as greater international financial support directed to local organisations serving those in greatest need."

Dulière added: "Currently, the country is going through a massive economic crisis with 1.7 million people living under the poverty line and some 22 per cent of the population is expected to fall into extreme poverty.

"The sanitary situation is deteriorating as people struggle to access the hygiene products they need, and the healthcare system is seriously strained as more and more people are infected.

"Many have no choice but to work to feed their families, but with the current lockdown, this seems an impossibility."

Christian Aid says that the poorest are being hurt the most in the crisis and that the latest lockdown restrictions are only making it harder to help them.

Deborah Hyams, Christian Aid's Senior Advocacy Advisor on Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, said it was vital that the international community continue to help Lebanon.

"The devastating explosion last summer has left deep scars in a country facing not only escalating Covid-19 cases, but extreme economic hardship, hyperinflation, mass unemployment and political turmoil," she said.

"The situation for Majid, and many families like his, was already difficult; they are now bearing the brunt of Lebanon's spiralling economic and health crises, as well as struggling with the mental and physical aftermath of the August blast.

"We remain grateful to those who have supported our Lebanon emergency appeal. Their support has extended the difference our partners are making to many more families, but there is still extreme need.

"The long-term impact of the explosion, which devastated Beirut's port and destroyed grain stores, is sharply worsening living conditions for those already vulnerable in Lebanon's ongoing crisis.

"It requires a long-term response and continued international support, focused on reaching the poorest."

Nohad Al-Mir is grateful for the financial assistance she has received.(Photo: CAFOD)

Despite the scale of the challenges, CAFOD says there are signs of healing.

The aid agency is supporting a local self-care hub offering trauma counselling, and has been working with local aid agency Caritas Lebanon to distribute over 150,000 hot meals and food packages to families in need.

Nearly 700 houses have been renovated as part of a youth volunteer project and, through Association Najdeh, it has distributed cash to over 3,000 households affected by the blast.

Nohad Al-Mir, a secretary from Karantina, a Beirut neighbourhood that was severely damaged by the blast, is one of the households to have received help.

"In every other way, that Tuesday last August was unremarkable. Dusk was just settling over my neighbourhood and I had visited the store to get some household items," she said.

"Suddenly, I heard the sound of a blast. The glass in the store began to shake. I ran away but I could not pass the road. So, I tried a different route, but debris from buildings blocked the way, and I was shocked at the blood that stained the pavements.

"When I finally arrived home, I found my house as it still stands today, in ruins. I'm now living in my brother's house with his family, but I come daily to check on my house.

"Association Najdeh provided me with financial assistance that will help me to buy a refrigerator and gas. The foundations of a new start, and for that, I am very glad."