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Beirut explosion: Lebanese-Canadian group raises money while grappling with tragedy

A man walks next to damaged vehicles in the aftermath of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, 05 August 2020. According to media reports, at least 100 people were killed and more than 4,000 were injured after an explosion, caused by over 2,500 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse, devastated the port area on 04 August.
A man walks next to damaged vehicles in the aftermath of a massive explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, 05 August 2020. According to media reports, at least 100 people were killed and more than 4,000 were injured after an explosion, caused by over 2,500 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse, devastated the port area on 04 August. EPA/WAEL HAMZEH

Lebanese-Canadians who watched in horror as an explosion levelled part of Beirut turned their attention to fundraising on Wednesday, saying it was one of the few things they could do to feel useful from the other side of the world.

Mohamad Moati of Vaughan, Ont., said he was on the phone with his siblings in Lebanon’s capital when Tuesday’s blast levelled part of the city.

He heard the boom and the panic that followed, he said, and has been processing the tragedy ever since.

“There’s a sense of mixed emotion, of guiltiness for being grateful that we’re in a great country like Canada, and at the same time feeling very guilty that we can’t be back home with family members and friends and actually help out with the disaster,” he said.

Thousands of Canadians devastated by loss of life in Beirut blast, desperate for word about loved ones
Thousands of Canadians devastated by loss of life in Beirut blast, desperate for word about loved ones

Moati said he and others in the “Lebanese in Canada” Facebook group he founded are working to raise money in hopes they can make things a little easier for those in Lebanon.

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“Everybody has been has been trying to help in their own way, whether it’s supporting with words, or supporting financially, or sharing information that can help other people that are back home,” he said.

Though emergency responders were still combing through the rubble in search of survivors and victims on Wednesday, some details about the scope of the damage are already known.

Read more: What we know — and don’t know — about the Beirut explosion

A long-time Montreal resident is among at least 135 who were killed, a city councillor confirmed, and the Canadian Armed Forces said one of its members was among the thousands who were wounded.

Investigators began searching through the wreckage of Beirut’s port Wednesday for clues to the cause of the massive explosion, and the government ordered port officials put under house arrest amid speculation that negligence was to blame.

The investigation is focusing on how 2,500 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical used in fertilizers, came to be stored at the facility for six years, and why nothing was done about it.

Moati said his experience of the incident has been shaped by decades of trauma that have rocked Lebanon, including war and sporadic terrorist attacks, as well as a more recent bout of tragedy.

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Lebanon was already experiencing a severe economic crisis that has ignited mass protests in recent months. Its health system is confronting a surge of COVID-19, and there were concerns the virus could spread further as people flooded into hospitals.

“Your heart is back home but you still have to continue life here and support the family and support yourself,” Moati said. “It’s trying to juggle all these priorities. And at the same time, all of my family is back home. Friends are back home.”

Beirut explosion: Lebanese journalist says ‘great fear’ in city after massive explosion
Beirut explosion: Lebanese journalist says ‘great fear’ in city after massive explosion

Mixed in with all the other emotions, he said, is an overwhelming sense of worry.

“This explosion came up at a time where the currency has collapsed back home and nobody has the money to repair damages to their houses, to their cars … or to get food supplies and medical supplies and all that stuff,” he said.

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Ahmad Araji, president of the Lebanese Club of Ottawa, said he was still in shock a day after the incident, and found it hard to put the magnitude of the tragedy into words.

“There’s so little you can do from abroad,” he said. “And the country has been going through a lot. This is the last thing the people needed right now, especially with the economic crisis, poverty peaking, the currency crash, COVID.”

Read more: Wife of Canadian resident recalls moments after Beirut explosion

He said his first cousin, his wife and their young daughter live in downtown Beirut and were hit by glass that shattered during the explosion.

His group has started an online fundraiser that had raised thousands of dollars by early Wednesday afternoon for the Lebanese Red Cross and hospitals overrun by the wounded.

Araji said the group is also trying to raise awareness about the lack of blood supply in Beirut in an effort to encourage locals to donate.

“They need money, they need funds, they need help. They need support — moral support, financial support,” Araji said. “We’re trying to do all of that at the same time.”

— with files from The Associated Press

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Deadly explosion rips through downtown Beirut
Deadly explosion rips through downtown Beirut