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Cordaid NL
Humanitarian Aid Lebanon

“We didn’t know each other, yet we felt like friends”

Beirut, August 4, 2020. A devastating explosion in the port of the Lebanese capital killed at least 220 people and injured 6,500. An estimated 300,000 people lost their homes. One year after the blast, many houses have been rebuilt, but the crisis is far from over. Samer Al Jamal (27), the coordinator of the emergency response by the Dutch Relief Alliance, shares his story.

“I am from Achrafieh, the part of Beirut near the port that was destroyed by the ammonium nitrate blast on August 4, 2020. The sound of windows falling, of breaking glass in the streets, will be in my ears forever.

Humanitarian response

That night, we checked on our loved ones and went out. We tried to get wounded people into overburdened hospitals. The next morning, in the light of day, we saw the nightmare’s full extent. Part of our city was blown away. With other volunteers we went from place to place, cleaning and clearing rubble, checking on people, giving food. We didn’t know each other, yet we felt like friends.”

“For Beirut citizens my age, this was the first humanitarian crisis we experienced.”

I love my country and its people. Now was the time, despite the panic, the grief, and the fear, to do something for them. For Beirut citizens my age, this was the first humanitarian crisis we experienced. I had no background in humanitarian work. I used to have a commercial job, in export. My office was destroyed in the blast.

Doing voluntary work in the streets, I met these humanitarian professionals. It was a new world. We had never seen NGOs in our neighbourhood. Aid workers who were involved in the joint response of the Dutch Relief Alliance invited me to work with them. It changed my life. Now, I can do what I love doing most in these adverse times, which was reaching out to others. But on a much bigger scale.

COVID-19

Before the blast, COVID-19 infection rates were rising. After the blast, these rates went berserk. For humanitarians, lockdown restrictions were less severe. Meaning that we mostly went to people, from door to door. Thousands of doors. Mostly of people who were forgotten. Disabled and elderly people who could hardly move, surviving in dangerously damaged houses. The able-bodied and the young, busy as they are organizing their survival, sometimes forget those who are silent. We searched for them, and found them.

“Today, a year after the blast, we have rebuilt a lot of damaged buildings. Yet the crisis is even bigger. Different but bigger.”

Every person we gave food, soap, essential sanitation and infection prevention items, shared what they received with other families. I remember this 90-year-old lady. Her name was Adibe. Like the others, we had given her rice, beans, salt, cheese, tuna, sugar, and other things. She insisted that we kept the oil for ourselves because it was so expensive. Surely, we, or our parents, could do with some oil as well? It was incredibly moving to see this solidarity. Of course, we didn’t accept the offer.

Rebuilding Beirut

Today, a year after the blast, we have rebuilt a lot of damaged buildings. Yet the crisis is even bigger. Different but bigger. Houses might have been rebuilt, but the poverty has sharply increased. The price of oil, for example, went from 6.000 to 50.000 Lebanese Pounds per litre. The blast has made the poor even poorer.

When I say ‘we have rebuilt Beirut’ I mean we, the young. The young generation was there to respond and to rebuild our city. During the crisis, we haven’t seen anyone from the government in the streets from Achrafieh. Only the young from Beirut and the international aid workers. We felt abandoned by our own elected leaders. We will respond again if needed. But we shouldn’t. This should be the responsibility of our government. We can only hope to see new faces. Honest and incorruptible.”

The Dutch Relief Alliance

The Dutch Relief Alliance is a coalition of 14 Dutch aid organisations in partnership with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The DRA members collaborate in humanitarian interventions – delivering greater impact than members operating independently.