TEN thousand families in Lebanon are still in desperate need of food and basic hygiene items six months after one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history devastated its capital, Beirut, compounding the economic and health crises, Christian Aid reports.
A fire in the port area of Beirut ignited 2750 tonnes of unsafely stored ammonium nitrate, causing widespread destruction; more than 200 people were killed, 6500 others were injured, and 75,000 homes were destroyed or damaged, displacing tens of thousands of families (News, 5 August 2020). The large quantities of grain stored in the port destroyed in the blast increased concerns about widespread food insecurity.
Lebanon is home to an estimated 1.5 million Syrians who have fled the decade-long conflict in their homeland and are living in poverty. Fadi Halisso is the co-director of Basmeh and Zeitooneh, an NGO and Christian Aid partner founded in 2012 to serve Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the region. He said: “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.
“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 is heart-breaking.
“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.”
The high number of casualties in the blast had placed hospitals already stretched by the impact of the coronavirus under severe strain; and the healthcare system was now stretched to its limits, Mr Halisso said. “Intensive-care units are full, and there are dire shortages of hospital beds, essential drugs, oxygen-therapy devices, ventilators, and medical staff.”
On 14 January, the government introduced a strict round-the-clock curfew in response to a steep rise in Covid cases (News, 5 February). While infection rates are now declining, 751 deaths were reported in the week to 31 January — almost a quarter of Lebanon’s Covid-19 deaths since the pandemic began. The restrictions have further harmed the economy and made it difficult for NGOs to deliver support.
Another Christian Aid partner, Association Najdeh, which received funding from the Scottish Government’s Humanitarian Emergency Fund, as well as Christian Aid’s Lebanon Crisis Appeal, has provided emergency cash assistance to 708 vulnerable households directly affected by the explosion. These are mostly Palestinian and Syrian refugee families who do not receive any support from the Lebanese government.
Majid and family, originally from Syria, came to Beirut ten years ago as refugees. His home was damaged in the explosion — the doors and windows blew in, injuring his wife. “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,” he said.
CAFODA youth volunteer for Caritas Lebanon helps with the clean-up operation after the explosion
Christian Aid’s Senior Advocacy Adviser on Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, Deborah Hyams, said: “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.
“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. . .
“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.”
The Roman Catholic aid agency CAFOD has also been working alongside Lebanese organisations to begin rebuilding projects in Beirut. This has included working with Caritas Lebanon to distribute more than 150,000 hot meals and food packages to families in need; youth volunteers working on a project to renovate nearly 700 houses and assess the damage on more than 1000 other homes; and distributing funding to more than 3000 households affected by the blast through Association Nadjeh with which it is also partnered.
CAFOD’s Emergency Programme Manager, Hombeline Dulière, who lives in the capital, said that lockdown measures had only exacerbated “the already fragile situation. 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.”