The Honorary Consul of Lebanon in Vancouver says Lebanese-Canadians had a harrowing few hours trying to get in touch with friends and family after a shocking blast levelled huge portions of Beirut.
Dr. Nick Kahwaji said getting in touch with loved ones in the chaos that ensued after the blast, which killed at least 135 people and injured thousands others, was nearly impossible.
“We spent about a day and a half being frustrated and waiting to hear,” he said.
Kahwaji said members of his own family narrowly avoided getting caught in the most dangerous area, right next to the explosion. But he lost a friend, who had moved back to Lebanon from Montreal just two years ago.
“I think Lebanon is cursed, Beirut is cursed. We finish a problem to start another one,” Kahwaji said.
“A year ago, big fires hit all the forests in Lebanon. We lost a lot of forest, and houses, and lives. After the big fire, there was a big uprising on the streets against the corruption of the past government and the past 30 years of people governing the country.”
COVID-19 hit the country earlier this year, along with a huge economic downturn and problems caused by the devaluation of the Lebanese pound. Right now, US$1 is equal to about 1,500 Lebanese pounds.
Then came the explosion.
“It was beyond explanation. It came at a time when we have a collapsed economy, it came at a time when the hospitals are struggling to treat COVID-19 patients. And now we are overwhelmed.”
Multiple hospitals have been too damaged to admit new patients, according to the New York Times, and other medical facilities have been destroyed. Health-care workers were also among those killed.
Approximately 300,000 people have been left homeless and Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud has told Arab media outlets that losses are estimated upwards of $10 billion.
In a city on the cusp of economic collapse, Kahwaji said international aid is needed immediately, including from Canada.
“Beirut was the jewel of the Middle East. It has a big role to do between east and west as a bridge and it needs to be rebuilt,” he said.
Meanwhile, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said the province is prepared to do what it can to help the people of Lebanon, and said he would raise the question with Premier John Horgan.
“I think some people forget this, where events in one part of the world affect all of us,” Dix told an unrelated news conference on Wednesday.
“And we’ve seen that in the last number of months, where we’re working together in a world pandemic. And so supporting one another in these times is very important.”
Other countries have started to send medical personnel and supplies and other relief to aid in the recovery and clean-up efforts, including France, Germany and Poland. International organizations including the U.N. and the World Food Program are also sending emergency assistance.
Khawaji is appealing to members of the Lebanese diaspora in B.C. to contribute to the Lebanese Red Cross.
Meanwhile, an online fundraiser started in Mississauga, Ont., is trying to raise $10,000 for relief efforts for people who were displaced by the explosion.
“When you see the whole city is down… me personally, I’m trying to think of others. Of the people who are still looking for their loved ones, who don’t know where they are, of the people who actually lost their kids or lost their father,” organizer Saja AlGharib told Global News.
‘We’re trying to maybe send something to those people who — you know, you wake up into a normal day and you end up homeless. No shelter, no food, no water. You have nothing, you’re literally on the ground. And I don’t know what to say to that.”
— With files from Hannah Jackson