American University of Beirut

Social Support during crises is an “Art of Public Health”

​​​August 4, 2020, 18:08 - A date that will forever stay engraved in the hearts and minds of the Lebanese people. Every Lebanese will tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the explosion of Beirut Port, with minute details. The chaos that reigned during the first moments, the worry that gripped their hearts. What has just happened?! And then came the horrifying news: an enormous explosion ravaged Beirut Port! A surrealistic scene of pain, death and destruction struck our beloved Beirut!

Disbelief! Pain! Anger! All over Lebanon and all over the world, Lebanese people felt hurt and lost! An invisible thread of grief had bound them together! Everyone wanted to help, in any way they could! Volunteers rushed into the damaged areas. Groups collaborated together, community members rapidly organized themselves capitalizing on existing resources: some matched volunteers to projects, others cleaned up the rubble. Engineers and students conducted damage assessments. Professionals started on emergency renovation and used the materials they obtained themselves. Many started fundraising, cooking and distributing food. Others provided free expert consultations and provided recycling services, including e-waste recycling. The entire Lebanese community was mobilized! Especially youth who were eager to make an impactful change. The sense of community was a genuine manifestation of the Lebanese values and traditions: sticking together and helping each other in any way possible.

Using the words of Caroline Ghanem​, a Lebanese mother, “The explosion was like it was next door, and I live 20 kilometers away from the port! My children were traumatized! I wanted to channel their fear, frustration, and helplessness in the face of something so destructive to an opportunity for hope, positivity, and change. In a country like Lebanon, if there is a will there will always be a way. So my motherly response was to provide food as comfort. I started to cook and send meals to the stricken area. The children and I started with 100 sandwiches on August 5, which turned into 100 hot meals daily with the support of friends and family. I was overwhelmed by the immediate response for help, engagement and kindness of everyone! Some people helped by cooking meals, while others supported with funds or ingredients. My children and many others all took part in cooking that unforgettable, unfortunate summer. It helped us heal from the trauma we all felt from the blast. Now, a year after the explosion, and with the disastrous economic situation Lebanon is facing, I am still cooking."

This is the Lebanese spirit- a spirit that incited volunteers to collect glass debris from the explosion and transform it into recycled glass items. This environmentally-sensitive initiative created job opportunities and also supported the recycling process. A spirit that is unbreakable and always striving to find a positive side in a situation, no matter how dire it is! Using the words of Anthony Abdel Karim, a glass recycling advocate, “The second day of the blast, I woke up and went straight down to the affected area intending to help anyone in need. It wasn't long before I realized no one was taking care of the solid waste that was everywhere. At that time, I was volunteering with Basecamp. So, I suggested starting a team to work on solid waste management, mainly the broken glass resulting from the blast. They put me in contact with Ziad Abi Chaker, and we came up with a plan. The initiative was to collect the glass and recycle it in two factories in Tripoli. In the beginning, we had a hotline where people were sending us locations with reference pictures of the glass piles. We collected these locations and gave them to the team leader. We provided volunteers with safety gear and equipment needed to collect the glass. We also provided collection trucks for the teams. They would then pile up the glass at a designated location so that at the end of the week we could fill the trucks, and dispatch them in Tripoli. Over time, we enhanced our collection system and created our own Google map. By placing all the locations on it, a team member could create clusters of different locations that are close to each other. Each cluster would have a link and that link would be shared with the team leader. In only a month and a half, we were able to collect and recycle one hundred fifty tons of shattered glass." The power of community and the wisdom of the crowds inspired these volunteers to accomplish this remarkable public health achievement with little resources and in such a short time.

Humanitarian aid poured from all over the world!  Well known Lebanese and international artists organized concerts and dedicated their revenues to Lebanon! The graceful acts of the foreign workers in Lebanon were touching beyond words. Migrant workers in Lebanon have been severely affected by the economic crisis that drove them to unemployment and poverty; yet, they were on the front line of community support. They cleared debris and played a major role in structural rehabilitation support.  

Hardships reveal the true nature of a person, they say. The true nature of humanity was revealed in its most shining way during this difficult crisis. Perhaps the best description of this response would be that of Donne. In his poem, for whom the bell tolls, he says, “No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main [...] Each man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee."

People's empathy towards others' suffering mobilized them. To choose not to look away when others are suffering. To gently sweep away the agony of the distressed and decide to be the breeze of hope amidst despair is an art of public health!

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