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Supporting the victims of the Beirut explosion: “The solidarity here is amazing.”

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Luckily, at the time of the devastating explosion in a densely populated area of Beirut, Nadiya Ibrahim was at a safe distance in her hometown Machghara in West Bekaa, some 80 kilometres away from the Lebanese capital. But now, as a humanitarian Programme Officer for Caritas Switzerland, Nadiya is standing in the middle of the debris to assess the needs of the victims.

Humanitarian organisations in the Netherlands have come together for a major fundraising campaign to support the people who have been gravely affected by the blast. With the donations to Giro555, Cordaid, as a member of the Caritas Internationalis network of catholic humanitarian organisations, will be working closely together with Caritas Switzerland and Caritas Lebanon to provide aid to thousands of people in Beirut.

“When I saw the explosion, I just couldn’t believe it”, says Nadiya, 26 years old and our eyes and ears on ground zero. “I was very lucky to be where I was at the time. Our office in Beirut has been damaged though, mainly broken glass everywhere, but we have managed to fix most of it already.”

“When you’re standing in the middle of it, it’s much worse.”

Many people haven’t been so lucky. What can you tell us about what you saw in the disaster area?

“The images of the destruction are all over the media, but I can assure you, those images don’t reflect reality well. When you’re standing in the middle of it, it’s much worse. Even though a lot of rubble and debris has been removed already, the scale of the destruction is just shocking.”

How are people in the area coping with the aftermath of the explosion?

“There is a lot of despair. People are exhausted. Lebanon was already going through a major economic crisis, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The political situation was at an absolute low point. And now this. This might be Lebanon’s worst year in history. I saw people packing their belongings into their cars and driving off, seeking refuge elsewhere. They gave up hope.”

“We need to focus on reconstruction and we should not let ourselves be distracted by politics.”

Do you see any light in these dark days?

“What’s giving us a lot of hope, is seeing all these people from all over the country coming to Beirut to help. One volunteer told me her mother is very ill and it was difficult to leave her behind, but she still travelled from far away to help the victims of the explosion. The solidarity you see here is amazing. That definitely brightens up this very sad situation.”

There is also a lot of international support and solidarity for the people in Beirut. How does that make you feel?

“That is very special. Apart from all the local teams which immediately started providing all kinds of aid, like food, water, clothing, medicine and psychosocial support, there will also be a lot of international aid coming in. We are so grateful for the solidarity we are receiving from all over the world. That is a great relief in these difficult times. Unfortunately, we can’t really count on our own government, so it’s heartwarming to know that there are people out there who are ready to support us.”

“I can reassure donors that the funding for aid will not fall into the hands of the government.”

As you’ve mentioned, there is a lot of political tension in Lebanon today. Protesters are taking to the streets to show their anger about the rampant corruption and the dysfunctional government. Could this unrest somehow interfere with the aid efforts?

“Well, the political situation is getting worse every day. You start seeing a sectarian divide among protesters. That is incredibly worrying. But that’s how it often goes during crises in Lebanon. Some people take advantage of a crisis to divide the population even more. We have been through a long civil war. We don’t want to go through that again. We need to focus on reconstruction and we should not let ourselves be distracted by politics.”

People might worry that the funds for aid could end up in the wrong hands. What would you say to them?

“I can reassure donors that the funding for aid will not fall into the hands of the government but will be received with great gratitude by humanitarian organisations, both local and international, who will do everything they can to support the victims in the most effective and accountable way possible.”

“We will provide money for repairs as well as cash money for basic needs.”

Are there other challenges for aid workers in Beirut?

“Right now, it is very chaotic on the ground. The coordination of the aid provision needs to improve quickly. In some areas, there are too many volunteers, while other affected areas are being neglected. We need to focus on better guidance of volunteers. Also for their own safety. A lot of people are doing great work out of a sense of urgency, but they are forgetting about important safety measures. I saw people knocking down walls, without really considering the consequences. On top of that, I don’t see enough government security forces to guarantee the safety of a large number of people in the area.”

As a Programme Officer for Caritas Switzerland, you will be working with Caritas Lebanon and Cordaid in the coming weeks to set up a response for the victims of the explosion. What will you be doing exactly?

“As an immediate emergency response, Caritas Lebanon started providing water, food, medicines, shelter and psychosocial support. We will help them to support people in the long-term. A staggering number of 300.000 people have lost their homes. We will provide money for repairs as well as cash money for basic needs.”