Lebanese-Canadians who watched in horror as an explosion tore through Beirut turned their attention to helping their homeland on Wednesday, even as they struggled to process their grief at the tragedy.
In Montreal’s tight-knit Lebanese community, almost everyone knows someone overseas who has been injured or killed in the tragedy, according to Lamia Charlebois, who runs a Facebook page for the community.
The blast flattened Beirut’s busy port area, sending glass flying and collapsing walls, floors and balconies for kilometres, killing at least 135 people and wounding about 5,000, according to Lebanese officials.
“We all have someone who is wounded, who is still not found, who is dead,” said Charlebois, who had a friend who was killed and another who lost an eye in the blast.
“The community is extremely sad. There’s anguish and despair,” she said. “But at the same time we’re mobilized, and we want to help every way we can.”
She said many in the Lebanese community have been donating to the Lebanese Red Cross, which is forced to handle the tragedy amid a COVID-19 crisis that has already left emergency rooms overcrowded. The Canadian Red Cross has also announced a support fund to help the country.
Mohamad Moati of Vaughan, Ont., cited fundraising as one of the few ways to feel useful from the other side of the world.
Moati was on the phone with his siblings in Lebanon’s capital when Tuesday’s blast levelled part of the city and heard the boom and the panic that followed.
“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.
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.
“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.
Investigators in Lebanon began searching through the wreckage for clues to the cause of Tuesday’s explosion, and the government ordered port officials put under house arrest amid speculation that negligence was to blame.
Though Lebanese emergency responders were still combing through the rubble in search of survivors and victims on Wednesday, some details about the extent of the damage are already known.
Long-time Montreal resident Nizar Najarian was among the 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 injured.
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.”
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 for hospitals.
Charlebois said members of the community are supporting each other and have been comforted by the calls and messages of condolence from friends and strangers from across Canada.
Montreal lowered its flag to half-mast, while the city’s Lebanese consulate announced a candlelit vigil for Thursday night.
Charlebois urged the Canadian government to help by sending disaster response teams, environmental experts, and eventually building materials, “because the houses were blown up at a very big radius,” she said.
Charles Aboukhaled, president of a Canadian-Lebanese business association, said discussions are already underway with the federal government to send emergency food and medical aid.
He noted that a large portion of Lebanon’s grain reserves were decimated by the blast and that Beirut’s hospitals have been damaged and may lack medicine.
The tragedy struck as 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.
Aboukhaled, like several other Lebanese-Canadians who spoke to The Canadian Press, pointed out that the country’s people have been shaped by decades of tragedy, including war and sporadic terrorist attacks.
“We’re really in a state of shock and incredulity, asking, ‘When will this nightmare end?’” he said.
While the immediate attention remains on the humanitarian effort, Aboukhaled said longer-term recovery needs to include meaningful answers about what really happened.
Currently, 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 port facility for six years.
“How can it be there were products like that, that this happened with these products, and who is responsible?” he asked.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 5, 2020.
— With files from The Associated Press
Nicole Thompson and Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press