Days after a massive explosion killed 158 and injured thousands in Beirut, Lebanon, young people and friars from the city’s Conventual Franciscan parish were still working to clear the rubble.
The blast took place on Tuesday, August 4, 2020. The Boy and Girl Scouts from St. Anthony of Padua Church in Beirut’s Sin-El-Fil district responded by throwing themselves into relief work. Armed with shovels, brooms, buckets, and work gloves, more than fifty youth joined thousands of other volunteers to clean up homes, schools, and shops that had been damaged in the explosion, which was allegedly caused by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been improperly stored in Beirut’s port.
After sweeping up broken glass and covering the shattered windows of their own church building, which was almost 3.7 km [2.25 mi.] from the blast, the friars from St. Anthony Church joined forces with the young people of the parish in reaching out to others.
“Pools of dried blood smeared the stairs on the way up to one fourth floor apartment of an elderly couple in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood” recounted one of the friars who was working with the youth. “The husband was unable to carry his injured wife down from their home and had to wait for friends to arrive from the other side of the city.” The couple’s bedroom was a confusion of mangled window frames and glass shards, with closet doors torn from their hinges and thrown over the bed. The walls and floor of the apartment were splattered with blood stains.
“I insisted that we take the time to clean off the dried blood,” said one scout leader, Lea SAYEGH, commenting that she was thinking about the now hospital-bound elderly woman’s eventual return to the apartment. “If she were to come home from a long stay in the hospital, and such an explosion, and see her own blood on the stairs and walls, it could bring back all the horrible memories.”
Although this home was in a terrible condition, its overall structure remained intact; it was actually better off than many of the other buildings in which the scouts and friars worked. Damage occurred up to 9 km [5.6 mi.] away from the center of the explosion. The blast left approximately 300,000 people homeless.
Beirut’s impoverished Karantina district is close to the port where the explosion occurred. The situation there was dire. The blast tore away the exterior of the nearest buildings and caused the collapse of interior walls in more distant structures. Many of the neighborhood’s poor inhabitants were still living in the less-damaged homes. They invited the scouts inside to help remove debris and clean.
Despite the horror of the destruction, the scouts’ mood was hopeful and at times even joyful.
“On the first day [after the blast] we were not able to go out and clean and we were feeling useless, even depressed, because as scouts, we are used to being ‘hands on’ and assisting everyone,” said Group Leader Karen NASR. “But volunteering on the street, you feel like you are making a change, no matter how young you are, by cleaning a house or by comforting someone—and you feel better. You feel solidarity with everyone and it pushes you to do more, to give more.”
However, these volunteers also shared that part of their motivation for helping others was that it helped them cope with their own losses. NASR and SAYEGH both temporarily lost their jobs when the hotel they worked at was hit by the blast. NASR was away that day, but SAYEGH had been working in the hotel’s lobby when the explosion tore through the building. NASR reported that homes of more than half of the scouts involved in the group’s relief efforts had been damaged in the blast.
“Most of us are probably experiencing shock,” she said, reflecting on the suffering that her country has experienced throughout history. “My parents’ generation was used to war and terrorism and explosions, but we young people are not. So, this sort of relief work helps us to deal with the shock and to cope.”
Finally, the scouts felt compelled to volunteer because so little relief was being offered by the government, which, they said, was even slow to provide minimal waste removal after the blast.
Lebanese Bishop Calls on Christians Worldwide for Spiritual, Political, and Financial Aid
Government corruption and gridlock had already led to an economic crisis and the popular protests that began in October of 2019.
In an interview with the Conventual Franciscan friars, the Most Reverend César ESSAYAN, O.F.M. Conv., Vicar Apostolic of Beirut, commented, “Now this explosion has further exposed government corruption and negligence.” The Bishop of Lebanon appealed to Christians around the world for financial and spiritual aid. “The country needs financial support in order to get back on its feet,” said Bishop ESSAYAN, addressing the immediate needs of his suffering people. “They must give aid to NGO’s, to Caritas, to the Red Cross, and to the churches.”
On a spiritual level, the Bishop pointed out that an overhaul of decades of government corruption could only occur through a change of mindset among individual Lebanese.
“True conversion of the heart can only come from prayer,” said Bishop ESSAYAN, offering an analysis of his nation’s crisis, a crisis that finds its roots in what he referred to as a mindset of slavery. “Pope John Paul II called the country of Lebanon a ‘message of freedom’ where different religious groups seek to live together. In part, he gave Lebanon a vocation. But do we Lebanese citizens today truly desire this? For this we need prayer.”
Friar Andrew Jeylan HOCHSTEDLER