The humanitarian impact of the Beirut explosion
Following the Beirut explosion and Lebanon’s COVID outbreak, Concern works to avoid a humanitarian crisis by providing clean water and shelter to the most vulnerable
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Three weeks after the explosion that sent shock-waves around the world, the people of Beirut are still reeling. Our team is going the extra mile to respond to their trauma with compassion and humanity, and to support the incredible efforts of local volunteers who were among the first to respond.
For those of us who watched the blast on our screens, the sheer scale of it was difficult to fathom. For the people who experienced it first-hand, many still have not been able to process the enormity of its impact on their lives. As our team has been responding to the urgent needs of those worst affected, they are met with emotional trauma in every household. For them, this is an emergency like no other, as they have had to process their own shock and their own loss as they respond to the needs of others.
We talked to a member of our team who has helped to bring a personal touch to Concern’s response.
Sanaa Hussein is a Senior Protection Officer in the Shelter Department of Concern. She, like the rest of the team, is usually based in the north of the country where they are responding to the needs of Syrian refugees and to the communities who are hosting them. She says when they first heard about an explosion, they did not realise the full gravity of the situation. People assumed it was probably a small bomb, an event that is sadly not uncommon in the capital. It was only when they saw the dramatic images of the blast that were broadcast across the world that the reality began to sink in.
It was really shocking for us. Lebanon is a small country. Our families are living in Beirut, so are our friends. So the first thing we did was try to reach them.
It was a tense and difficult time for all involved as there was no connection for the first few hours. Even as team members slowly began to make contact with their loved ones, there was a sense of helplessness amongst the team.
“We didn’t know what to do. None of us slept, we stayed up all night thinking about what had happened.”
When it was announced that over 300,000 people had been left homeless and the devastation caused by the blast became more apparent, so too did the need to do something about it. In Beirut, groups of volunteers began to form, spearheading a huge clean-up effort. Concern soon facilitated transport to the capital for any staff members who wanted to join in.
Upon arrival, Sanaa was immediately struck by how different it was to be there in person than to see it on the news.
“So many buildings are affected. Almost everyone has a loved one who lost their lives, or was injured or is still missing. It’s a miserable situation.”
Amidst all the pain and destruction however, there was something else that was striking as the volunteers were hard at work. The solidarity and support of people from all areas of Beirut, and all areas of the country, was a very welcome sight.
People find this is the positive thing from the explosion. It has united all the Lebanese people from different areas, from different religions and ethnicities. They came to Beirut because Beirut is important for all Lebanese people. It is the heart of Lebanon.
Given the scale of damage, our Lebanon team quickly began assessments to see where they could support most effectively with an official response. During those assessments, they identified households in the poorest and most vulnerable communities whose homes were damaged or destroyed and immediately began distributions of shelter and hygiene kits.
They also began to realise the full extent of the trauma that those same communities are now suffering from.
“When we were visiting families conducting the assessments, we thought people will tell us about the damage in their homes but the first reaction for them was crying and telling us how the blast happened and how they survived. They are traumatised.”
With years of experience of working in Protection for Concern, primarily with Syrian refugees, Sanaa is no stranger to working with people who are impacted by traumatic events. The Syrian crisis is now nearing its tenth year and the people she works with are typically struggling to cope with a later stage of trauma. For people in Beirut, the trauma is still fresh. Sanaa explains that many people in Beirut are struggling to come to terms with the shock of what has just happened to them.
“I remember on my third day here, I saw a shop which needed cleaning and I asked the owner if he wanted help and he answered no. He said he just wanted to look at it, to see it. This is another kind of psychological pain. He’s still in shock.”
Sanaa knows the importance of treating people who are experiencing trauma with humanity, dignity and empathy. The current COVID-19 outbreak makes this more challenging, with face masks and social distancing creating barriers to communicating with compassion and sensitivity. She wanted to find a way to overcome those barriers.
We need to reach people in a way that lets them know that we're not just distributing kits. It’s solidarity, it's empathy, it's support. We care about you and we will try to do the best we can for you. This is the message.
Her solution was simple, but so effective – to say all of that with flowers. One rose to accompany each shelter kit that she and her teammates were distributing.
“It’s like a hug, which you cannot physically do because of COVID-19, but at least you can express it through the flower. They are a wonderful form of non-verbal communication that touches everyone’s heart.”
It had the added benefit of supporting local businesses, as all the flowers have been purchased from shops in the affected areas. Sanaa is delighted that her idea has worked so effectively.
It is amazing, they love it! You can see people’s facial expressions changing. When they see the rose, they start to smile.
The idea to communicate with flowers was one that was born out of current circumstances but also of past experience. Sanaa believes that the way in which assistance is delivered is as important as the assistance itself. She knows this because she has been on the other end of this interaction herself.
As a refugee in Lebanon, having already been forced to flee her home in Palestine, Sanaa and her family were displaced for a second time when the camp they were living in became a focal point for conflict in 2007. They left their home after their neighbours in the camp were killed and they moved temporarily into Sanaa’s grandfather’s house.
"I still remember, we all felt sad and angry, our homes were totally destroyed. Organisations started to give assistance by distributing kits to the affected families. But the way it was delivered, it didn’t show solidarity. People felt hurt because they were just leaving the kits and walking away without saying a single word. And that hurt is the feeling that stays with you."
Sanaa has also been giving support to the incredible volunteer groups who have mobilised on the ground. She is giving advice on how to approach families, how to respond to their stories, how to listen actively, and where to refer people for the psychosocial support that they need.
“They are small details but they count because it builds the trust and the confidentiality from both sides.”
The fact that many of the volunteers are themselves traumatised is reflective of the scale of pain and suffering across the city. Sanaa has also given advice on how they should look after themselves.
“They need to have self-care in order to be able to continue volunteering. Otherwise, it will be very hard for them to support others.”
Concern has been advising and supporting the volunteers on different facets of their work. The volunteer groups possess a wide variety of skills and our teams bring their own expertise to the table. It is all about solidarity. Because amidst all the trauma, these are the things that will help see people through – solidarity, empathy and support.
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