Lebanon is struggling. A multi-layered crisis is putting the population to the test and aid workers are doing everything in their power to support those who can’t count on the government for their basic needs. We spoke to Sarah Omrane from Caritas, the catholic relief confederation of which Cordaid is a member, who has been supporting victims of the explosion ever since that fatal day in August 2020.
How many crises can one country handle? After war broke out in Syria, Lebanon showed itself from its most hospitable and caring side by opening the border for hundreds of thousands of refugees, while still dealing with its own sectarian conflicts.
And right when the economy was starting to show serious cracks in its fundament, the corona pandemic hit, followed by a devasting blast in the port of the capital city Beirut. These events plunged Lebanon into an unprecedented crisis.
In all this turmoil, Cordaid, Caritas Lebanon and Caritas Switzerland have been supporting those who have been hit hardest by these multiple disasters.
“We are in a tunnel and there is no light at the end yet.”
“Right now, the socioeconomic situation is perhaps our biggest challenge”, says Sarah Omrane. In the humanitarian response after the blast, she has been working on financial support for the victims, so they can rebuild their homes and buy their basic needs.
“There is a massive devaluation of money. Salaries have lost their value, prices have increased, basic goods have become unaffordable for many, and the government ended subsidies for necessities such as fuel and medicines.”
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 78 per cent of the Lebanese population have fallen below the poverty line and 89 per cent of Syrian refugee families live in extreme poverty.
“This is Beirut. A big, modern city. Or at least, it used to be.”
Omrane: “This is the worst depression of the century. People’s health is at stake because they are not able to buy good quality food and they are losing their income because a lot of businesses have closed.
I am part of the lucky ones. I have a job. I can support my family. But we often don’t have electricity. During the heat waves in summer, we literally couldn’t sleep. There wasn’t enough fuel available, so we also couldn’t use a generator.
This is Beirut. A big, modern city. Or at least, it used to be. Hospitals are shutting down, people are dying. There is violence in the city. People are fighting over fuel or medication. We are in a tunnel and there is no light at the end yet.”
Little faith in politics
After a year of political deadlock, a new government has been installed last September. Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s cabinet vowed to undo the economic collapse. Saying many Lebanese, including Omrane, are highly sceptical about this promise, would be an understatement.
“They should start taking the necessary steps, but I see that many of the politicians who are responsible for Lebanon’s bankruptcy are still in power.”
COVID-19, the health care system, the economy, security, the refugee crisis: Omrane and her humanitarian colleagues are longing for a break that is well-deserved and long overdue.
“Just to catch our breath a bit. But where do we start? What do we focus on now? All these challenges also impede our work. Especially the lack of electricity and fuel. We often can’t run our laptops or visit our partners in the field.
We are pleased, however, that money transfer offices are still functional. We use these financial service providers to transfer money to the people we support. This way we avoid the dysfunctional banking system, and it is much safer than giving them cash since street robberies are also on the rise.”
The aid programme for Beirut, which has been partly funded by the Dutch Giro555 campaign, ends this month and supported 1.365 households with money for rent or reparations and 1.330 households with money for basic needs.
Watch this video about the joint aid operation of various Caritas members and Cordaid:
Making a tangible difference
“I am happy we reached our targets. This type of support makes a very tangible difference because people can use the money directly for their own specific needs.
“Despite all the challenges, this project brought a lot of hope to people when they needed it most.”
We also supported many victims of the blast with mental health care. Almost everyone in Beirut is mentally drained, one way or the other. People are depressed.
Despite all the challenges, this project brought a lot of hope to people when they needed it most. We help those who are most vulnerable to stand on their own two feet. They are not alone and they are very grateful.
Right now, we are fighting for everything, our lives, our country, our dignity. But we are still here. And we aren’t going anywhere.”