BEIRUT, Lebanon — On Aug. 4, 2020, an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon shook the capital city. The blast left thousands injured and forced many more to leave their homes. As the rest of the world waited for the Lebanese government to take action, Beirutis took matters into their own hands. The events that followed shortly after were characteristic of how many impoverished communities survive crises in the Middle East.
How Beirutis Are Helping
The disaster displaced around 300,000 people, contributing to the rising rate of homelessness in Lebanon. Beirut residents with spare rooms or houses immediately began offering up their homes. The hashtag #OurHousesAreOpen quickly began trending on Twitter, connecting survivors to homeowners around the city. Hotel managers also opened up their rooms for free.
Like previous crises in the Middle East, the explosion left plenty of people in need of emergency care and destroyed three hospitals. When the Lebanese Red Cross called for blood donors, swathes of volunteers flooded the donation centers. These residents knew they would risk contracting COVID-19 but still chose to wait in line to help their city recover. The Red Cross was able to treat hundreds of people directly injured by the explosion.
As more people discovered victims in the rubble, an Instagram account helped reunite survivors with their families. In the first week of the incident, the account, @locatevictimsbeirut had a following of 100,000. Healthcare providers and psychiatrists also used the platform to offer services free of charge.
Changing The Narrative
News of an explosion in a Middle Eastern country is stereotypical for many. But most media reports rarely show the effects of such disasters on citizens and how impoverished communities survive crises. This narrative can be damaging because it dehumanizes crises in the Middle East, where more than 90% of the population is Muslim. Studies have also found that mass media is more than 350% more likely to cover attacks committed by Muslims.
A 2018 report found that civilians account for 70% of casualties caused by explosions or attacks. Despite this, crises are usually followed by an influx of military assistance rather than humanitarian aid for impoverished communities. What’s rarely showcased is the resilience and cooperation of the poor who have long since developed effective strategies to survive crises in the Middle East. The Beirut explosion was reminiscent of past tragedies for many residents.
A hotel owner, Waji Chbat recalled seeing similar effects during Lebanon’s most recent civil war. “We used to have every week or two weeks, a blast,” he said. Chbat has opened up his hotel to receive displaced citizens and will continue to do so for as long as is needed. “When somebody needs help,” Chbat says. “You just help without expecting anything in return and without thinking of what will happen tomorrow.”
Helping Culture in The Middle East
Every year during Ramadan, free food for the homeless and labor workers fill the streets of many Middle Eastern countries. Muslims walk down the streets during iftar, greeting the homeless and handing out meals. Because of the restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have resorted to placing meals for the homeless on their doorstep.
Similarly, after the explosion in Beirut, locals took to the streets to provide food and water for those who needed it. As she handed a passerby his lunch, a resident said, “we are distributing food for those who need it and for those who want it. There is no discrimination against anyone. We do not ask for their names or religion or anything.”
In Yemen, where conflict accounts for the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” Yemeni youth uplift and inspire their communities through art. Murad Subay, who has begun a powerful movement painting murals on destroyed neighborhoods, says, “This is how I fight in this war.” As Murad paints murals, he is often approached by Yemenis looking to support him by providing water, paint and even money.
Although a culture of unconditional help has been crucial in helping impoverished communities survive crises in the Middle East, these efforts need more international support and recognition. As seen in Lebanon, where the prime minister stepped down shortly after the Beirut explosion, governments are not always prepared to recover from disasters. Through the mentioned efforts through social media, the Lebanese residents were able to mobilize and provide solutions in a matter of days.
Recently, both political turmoil and an economic crisis have challenged Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries. To help the poor in these countries, humanitarian organizations can take note of citizens’ actions to provide effective, practical aid. Individuals can support these efforts through organizations like the Lebanese Red Cross, Impact Lebanon and Baytna Batak.
– Beti Sharew