From helplessness to helping out: How Lebanon's diaspora is responding to the Beirut blast

From helplessness to helping out: How Lebanon's diaspora is responding to the Beirut blast
Despite dealing with their own hopelessness and guilt, Lebanon's famously vast and intrinsically connected diaspora has sprung into action while its absent government sits idly by.
14 min read
25 August, 2020
Artwork made from broken glass depicting a Lebanese flag alongside a Phoenix bird. [Getty]
On 15 August, eleven days after a massive explosion ravaged Beirut, Dubai-based communications director Nina Shibly Chamlian wrote a post on her Instagram profile.

"Being a Lebanese abroad is looking out the window seeing families and children enjoying the summer time, then turning your head towards the TV and watching your people falling in despair while you are stuck, in the middle, incapable of participating in either of these two worlds."  

Chamlian's post was one of many alluding to the particular plight of those belonging to the Lebanese diaspora since the latest tragedy which befell the tiny but heavily burdened country on the Mediterranean coast. 

Prior to the blast, which has wreaked unprecedented havoc on the Lebanese capital, many Lebanese had already lost their livelihoods while having to helplessly stand by as they watched their life savings being decimated. 

Alarming reports of increased suicides, robberies by desperate fathers and threats of actual hunger looming in the near future had already turned Beirut, which usually blooms in summer while it welcomes back a massive influx of its scattered diaspora children, into nothing but a gloomy backdrop to its citizens' collective desperation.

  Especially at night, when you put your head down on your pillow, it was so scary imagining the pain people are feeling  

No one thought things could get any worse. "Lebanon has hit rock bottom" became an almost daily recurring lament, uttered between neighbours on balconies and typed into group chats on WhatsApp. But things could get worse. And they most certainly did. 

On a balmy August evening, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that were left unchecked at a warehouse in the port of Beirut suddenly exploded into a massive mushroom cloud, ravaging entire neighbourhoods of the city, killing over 220 people, badly injuring more than 6,000 and rendering 300,000 homeless, in a matter of seconds. At the time of writing, seven people are still missing.

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Millions of Lebanese citizens, many of whom at some point felt forced to leave their country, were now being forced to watch this unspeakable tragedy unfold on screens rather than beside their loved ones, who instead, they had to spend a seemingly never-ending, unbearably agonising amount of time trying to reach. 

Diane Bou Khalil, a 22-year old journalist who moved to Chicago to pursue her studies, was one of those people. While she says she was primarily grateful once she knew her family was safe, she spent the first ten days after the blast crying non-stop. 

"Especially at night, when you put your head down on your pillow, it was so scary imagining the pain people are feeling."

Although Diane is keen to stress that she doesn't want to normalise tragedy in Lebanon, and that 'regular bombs' are not normal either, this blast goes beyond anything she could ever imagine happening: "This is a crime against humanity. In Lebanon, you're not living, you're just surviving." 

Paralysed by grief 

"Since I left Lebanon, I always try to find reasons to talk about Beirut, to tell stories, and memories. It is part of me," says Hala El Moussawi, a 26-year-old PhD candidate who lives in Brussels. In the days following the explosion, she constantly heard people around her talking about Beirut.

"It was part of every conversation. I'd see strangers having a beer and showing each other the video of the explosion. I'd wake up to my radio alarm and the first news was from Beirut, both in Dutch and French. For the first time in seven years. And for the first time I just wanted them to stop talking, I wanted it all to be a dream." 

To be paralysed by feelings of despair and grief is a common occurrence in the relatively large Lebanese diaspora. It is often repeated, mostly by the Lebanese themselves, that around three to four times as many people of Lebanese origin live outside of Lebanon as in the country itself, though estimates widely vary.

Whenever a disastrous event takes place, which, as any Lebanese will not hesitate to tell you with their trademark gallows humor, is more often than not, many communities in the diaspora find themselves not only painfully aware of the fact that building a secure life abroad doesn't necessary equal piece of mind; they are also forced to go through a rollercoaster of seemingly contradictory emotions such as despair, relief, (survivor's) guilt, detachment and empathy.

  Being part of the Lebanese diaspora means you're always subconsciously waiting for the next explosion or political crisis  

 'I don't think I've ever cried so much'

"I don't think I've ever cried because of watching videos or reading posts on social media as much as this past year! It's been very tough, especially watching it all happen from afar," says Noelle Chomsy, 32, who left Lebanon four years ago to pursue an MBA after which she decided to settle in Dubai due to a lack of opportunities in her homeland.  

"For a week, I didn't want to enjoy anything. I felt guilty for enjoying the sun or having a good meal while others in Lebanon were looking for their loved ones through the rubbles. I was stuck to my phone more than 12 hours a day, sometimes watching the same videos over and over again," Noelle says.

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Hala realised that she had the opportunity to be surrounded and supported in this, and wanted other Lebanese in Brussels, who might feel just as alone, to have a space to collectively grieve. "Together with people I met during the October revolution, we organised a "space of grief" for Lebanese people a couple of days after [the blast]. With candles, silence, talks, crying, and just being there for each other," Hala says.

"Our connection to Lebanon becomes riddled with feeling sorry for people there, feeling helpless, and, in my case, feeling privileged that I get to live a proper life while people in Lebanon struggle for their basic needs," she adds.

From helplessness to helping out 

While remittances and cash injections during summer visits from the vast Lebanese diaspora, which are traditionally crucial sources of revenue for the country, had slowed down in the past years due to growing distrust in an increasingly dysfunctional and corrupt government, which unsurprisingly has also been glaringly absent in the aftermath of the blast, Lebanese living abroad wasted no time in providing much-needed assistance.

From functioning as a financial bloodline to their friends and family, many of whom are being denied access to what's left of their savings, to setting up fundraising campaigns and a myriad other efforts, entire Lebanese communities came together abroad to help out their struggling fellow citizens. 

One such initiative is Dammeh for Humanity, which was established in Michigan about a month before the blast, by a group of Lebanese American youth committed to empowering the most vulnerable communities overseas. "The blast compelled us to jumpstart our work," says Maya El-Sabban, a 30-year-old PhD student who lives in Charleston, South Carolina. 

The letters in the logo of Dammeh ('hug' in Arabic), shaped like two connected hearts, are meant to symbolise the bond between the diaspora of the Arab World and those that remain in the country of provenance. Dammeh utilises the network of Lebanese expats to crowdsource funds to sustain thoroughly vetted initiatives in Lebanon. 

  To be Lebanese in the diaspora is to have an unbelievable connection to a country thousands of miles away, even if you weren't born there  

"We have to rebuild and improve our home with the tools and lessons we learnt when we left,' says Sabban, adding that she wished she could be on the ground in Beirut, armed with a broom and hard hat. 

Like Sabban, many other young Lebanese, who almost all have loved ones who were impacted by the disaster, are donning a metaphorical broom and hard hat instead by channeling their grief and anger toward helping their stricken homeland from abroad. 

Even those who aren't fully accepted by that same homeland.

Despite not feeling like a part of the larger Lebanese community in the diaspora as she's not always seen as Lebanese, 24-year-old Karla Jbeily from Vancouver is heavily invested in giving back to those who are now suffering her father's homeland, a country she often visited growing up.

"As my mother is Filipina, I face a lot of stigma for being mixed. The racist society in Lebanon still heavily discriminates against migrant workers and even though my mom wasn't a migrant worker in Lebanon, I still feel that when I go there." 

With her baking sale, Jbeily has raised 3000 Canadian dollars ($2,280) for the universally beloved and highly trusted Lebanese Red Cross and Egna Legna, a local organisation led by women migrant workers.

In the wake of the blast, several reports have already emerged about discrimination against non-Lebanese in aid distribution. "One of the first things I said when the Beirut blast happened was, I felt like I lost my dad all over again. I have a deep connection to Beirut and that's mostly because my dad was born and raised there," Jbeily says. 

Dealla Samadi, a 23-year old medical student from Lexington, Kentucky, didn't hesitate to turn an idea she suddenly had in the middle of the night into a reality.

"I started Lexington for Lebanon, a visual art auction with works donated by artists in my community and beyond. All the money raised will be donated to local NGOs working on the ground in Beirut."

Spreading awareness through social media 

In the age of short attention spans, spreading awareness by posting visually appealing and highly personal stories on social media plays a crucial role when gathering sympathy in the context of fundraising, especially among younger people. Diane, a journalist herself in Chicago, stresses the importance of community and citizen journalism, and particularly the role of her fellow Lebanese diaspora dwellers in this, to keep the momentum alive.

"I feel like citizen journalism is at its peak in Lebanon right now. Highlighting people's stories is crucial to ensure people all over the world stay focused on their plight. You can already feel the media attention starting to wane. They say talk is cheap but there's 13 million people of us in the diaspora; you never know who your posts might reach and the difference they can make." 

  With the dysfunctional and corrupt government glaringly absent in the aftermath of the blast, Lebanese living abroad wasted no time in providing much-needed assistance  

Noelle agrees. While she was already donating to some NGOs on a monthly basis before the explosion, she says that her current donations are heavily influenced by emotional posts which make her feel helpless. "Emotional material on social media pushes people to donate," she says.  

Hopeless nostalgia  

How did the Lebanese diaspora come to play such a pivotal role in its homeland? Why do the ties remain so strong, even after many generations? 

In Giuseppe Tornatore's 1988 film "Il Nuovo Cinema Paradiso", projector Alfredo urges his young protégé Totò, who is about to leave their tiny Sicilian village to pursue his dreams: "Don't come back. Don't think about us. Don't look back. Don't write. Don't give in to nostalgia. Forget us all."

A large part of the Lebanese diaspora has clearly chosen a different approach. Not only are they known for 'giving in' to an almost hopeless nostalgia, they have a special knack for instilling their memories in their children and grandchildren, as if to ensure that future generations always know which Lebanon they should try to fight for and recapture.

Samadi illustrates her intense love for Lebanon by recalling a conversation she had with her jiddo(grandfather) a few years ago, on the sixth floor of a building in Tripoli's Mina district, where they would sit every night, often in silence, looking out on buildings that lined the streets. "He told me: you know, 20-30 years ago this was all empty. All you could see was trees and apple orchards and your father and his siblings would run straight from here into ocean." 

Samadi says she often thinks of her jiddo's Lebanon, how the beauty he grew up with is still there, if we can learn to prioritise and fight for it. "We should tap into our humanity and be very intentional about not being divided." 

"To be Lebanese in the diaspora is to have an unbelievable connection to a country thousands of miles away, even if you weren't born there," says Serena Abdallah, a 27-year-old based in Los Angeles. "It is something we feel in our blood." 

"I believe most, if not all, Lebanese people in the diaspora feel this love for Lebanon. However, despite the fierceness of that love, I think we also feel the sharp sting of being scorned by a lover every time something terrible happens. It's like, "How could you do this to us? AGAIN?"" Serena says, adding "But we always want to go back." 

'Living between two worlds' 

Jose Nehme, a 26-year-old senior copywriter who moved to Doha a year ago, happened to be back from a visit to Lebanon when the blast hit. "It immediately brought me back to [the] 2006 [war]. The sounds, the memories. It's like my mind has now linked these two big events together and everything in between does not exist anymore. All those years are lost, something that happened in some other life. It made me feel like I never left this country." 

  Since I left Lebanon, I always try to find reasons to talk about Beirut, to tell stories, and memories. It is part of me  

But he did leave, and he dreads having to go back to Doha. "I was supposed to already be back, but I postponed my trip," Nehme says. "I wasn't ready to leave my parents behind. I know the whole universe lives in uncertainty but in Lebanon it's a whole other level. Uncertainty mixed with fear and a constantly looming threatening feeling. Never in my life have I felt this way in my own country," he adds. 

What makes it even harder for Nehme to abandon his loved ones is that he believes something drastic will occur. "People keep saying '2020 is a bad year,' as if by the end of 2020 everything will be back to normal! No, we are witnessing some radical changes in our country." 

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Fake smiles and discounted alcohol

Not only does being part of the Lebanese diaspora mean you're always subconsciously waiting for the next explosion, political or economic crisis, but you also have to get used to donning a metaphorical mask of some sort as most of the people who surround you in your adopted country often cannot relate to such a starkly different, what to them can only seem like an almost ludicrously Lynchian, reality.

"I had to live a double life," says Chris, a 26-year-old who moved to Prague two years ago. "On the one hand, I have to fake a smile and pretend everything is more or less fine in front of my colleagues, who could never relate to my pain, and on the other hand, I had to battle increasing despondency, which made me dependent on alcohol after work, because it was my only refuge." 

"Getting a bottle that's on discount on the aisle at the supermarket is the simplest thing you can do [to cope]," he adds. 

After almost two weeks had passed since the explosion, Hala says, people back home slowly but steadily started talking about other aspects of their lives again. She wonders out loud whether it's a good thing as it helps her reconnect with her life in Brussels instead of agonising about a reality that she can't do much about. 

"Many times, during the day I feel crippled with guilt when I think like that.... But then I nourish my selfishness, or rather the importance of being self-centred. I am here now, I have needs, and I can't do much about what happened there..." But it doesn't take long for her to slip back into sadness again. 

"I feel that I want to write on my forehead "I am from Beirut," just so strangers can give me a hug. And it is at moments like these that I feel the surreality of living between two worlds."

Farah-Silvana Kanaan is a Beirut-based freelance journalist. She formerly worked as a reporter at The Daily Star

Follow her on Twitter: @FarahKanaan