'Completely heartbroken': How Lebanese-Canadians are reacting to the Beirut blast
TORONTO -- In the aftermath of the devastating explosion that killed at least 135 people and injured 5,000 more in Beirut, Lebanese-Canadians scrambled to contact loved ones still living there while they struggled to come to terms with what had just happened in their homeland.
With the largest Lebanese community in Canada, the city of Montreal has been particularly touched by the massive blast – ignited by a fire in a waterfront warehouse that was unsafely storing 2,750 tons of the highly explosive chemical ammonium nitrate.
Lamia Charlebois, who runs a Facebook page for Montreal’s Lebanese community, said everyone knows someone overseas who was injured or killed in the tragedy. She herself had a friend who was killed and another who lost an eye.
“We all have someone who is wounded, who is still not found, who is dead,” she told The Canadian Press on Wednesday. “The community is extremely sad. There’s anguish and despair.”
Another Montrealer, Rand Jamaleddine, said she was in disbelief when she first saw the images of the fiery explosion and plumes of smoke filling the air in the city she knows so well.
Jamaleddine and her parents fled Beirut during the civil war in the 1980s, but much of her extended family still lives there. Thankfully, she said her relatives survived the massive explosion.
“It’s just completely devastating,” she told CTV News Montreal on Wednesday. “I just feel helpless. It’s a country that’s already been through a lot. I’m completely heartbroken.”
That feeling of helplessness was echoed by Jessica Halabi, a Lebanese-Canadian in Edmonton, who said she plans to donate part of the proceeds from her clothing business to the Red Cross in Lebanon.
“Everybody’s asking how can I help? It’s really hard being here. We all feel really helpless,” she told CTV News Edmonton on Wednesday.
In the Toronto area, Mohamad Fakih, a well-known businessman and founder of the Paramount Fine Foods chain, said it’s been difficult being so far away from his parents, sisters, and cousins who are all still living in Beirut.
He said he feels “helpless, almost useless” at a time when the people who raised him are in need. Fakih said, however, that his family has been relatively fortunate in that they all survived.
“My two sisters had to move out of their apartments as well because their places are all shattered, destroyed. But that’s only property… we’re blessed,” he told CTV’s Your Morning on Thursday.
Fakih said one of his cousins had a couple of fractures in his legs and another one was undergoing surgery for an eye injury “due to the strength of the blast and the pressure breaking so much glass at a very high speed that went into his eye.”
The Canadian-Lebanese businessman said the people of Lebanon deserve better than this, especially after overcoming so many hardships over the past few decades, including civil war, periodic terrorist attacks, and a recent economic crisis.
While the cause of the explosion, which was so enormous it registered as a 3.3 magnitude earthquake, is still unknown, investigators are looking into whether negligence on the part of government and port officials may be to blame.
Fakih said it doesn’t matter whether the blast was the result of negligence or something else. He said the bottom line is the Lebanese government needs to start putting citizens first.
“The Lebanese people are very resilient,” he said. “They will rebuild as they’ve done it several times before, but they definitely deserve better.”
In Beirut, public anger towards the ruling class has been mounting for years for its inability to provide adequate infrastructure and basic services, such as electricity.
Lebanese-Canadians, too, have directed their anger and frustrations towards the country’s leadership decrying years of corruption and neglect.
Fakih said it’s hard to know where to send money to help so that it reaches the Lebanese people because many of them haven’t been able to access funds in their own bank accounts due to the financial crisis.
“You can’t even wire money because the bank will hold it. You don’t know through what organization you’re going to send it because you don’t know who's going to take the money, what is the percentage that they will receive,” he explained.
This distrust is why Lebanese-Canadians are asking those who wish to help to donate to private aid organizations, such as the Lebanese Red Cross and the Canadian Red Cross.
Nick Kahwaji, the honorary consul of Lebanon in Vancouver, said he hopes provincial and federal health officials will team up with non-governmental organizations to support Beirut’s hospitals.
“The hospitals are asking for help. They don't even have material to do sutures, to disinfect. They don't have enough gauze and peroxide — even the basic needs in hospitals is missing now,” he told CTV News Vancouver on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, the Canadian government announced it was committing up to $5 million in relief for the victims of the explosion.
Development Canada said the money includes an initial $1.5-million contribution to “trusted partners on the ground,” including the Lebanese Red Cross and the Canadian Red Cross.
Kahwaji encouraged the large Lebanese diaspora in Canada to help in any way they can.
“I’d like [Canadians] to pray for Lebanon,” he said. “It’s not the first time Beirut is destroyed. Beirut will stand up again, will build itself again, but now there’s a lot of suffering and Beirut really needs help.”