Far from home, yet so close: Lebanese abroad haunted by Beirut explosion

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Lina Helal was playing with her six-month-year old daughter when she turned on the TV from her Dubai home, baffled by the footage aired of the Beirut port explosion.

Helal then woke her husband up from a small nap, telling him something big was happening in Lebanon, the country they left two and half years ago in search of a better future.

“It took us some time to process what was going on and the magnitude of the explosion,” Helal, 31, told Al Arabiya English. “Our neighbors then joined us and we all started crying,” she said, describing her account after the Beirut explosion last week.

The explosion that has killed at least 178 people, according to a UN report citing Ministry of Public Health figures, injured over 6,000 and left dozens missing, did not only affect Lebanese at home.

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Although hundreds of miles away from their country, the emotional impact took its toll on the Lebanese expat community spread across continents. Some mourned loved ones and a lost homeland, and others set up donations to help with relief efforts back home.

The Lebanese diaspora is massive. While there are no accurate figures for its size, estimates say there are between 8 and 14 million Lebanese living outside the small Mediterranean country.

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“Do not think that since we are living abroad we were not affected by what happened. On the contrary, we are and maybe even more because in Lebanon the people are together, they are supporting each other,” Helal said. “I really wanted to be with everyone else and not let them do this and live through this alone.”

Helal said that since the explosion, they have been haunted by a feeling of sadness and ache.

August 6 was her and her husband’s 3rd wedding anniversary, but said they did not have the will to celebrate in any way.

“We’re in a state of mourning,” she said. “Although no one close to me was affected, it did feel like I lost someone. It felt like we were orphaned, that we lost our homeland.”

Many Lebanese abroad took to social media platforms to express their frustration with the situation in the country and said a feeling of helplessness – and at times, guilt – lingered.

Gathering donations

Several started donation campaigns, either by collecting money or supplies to be sent to Lebanon. Natalie Khoury, 34, was one of those.

After receiving many calls from people asking how they can help, Khoury began collecting money donations that were sent to volunteers that were preparing food packages.

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Living in Richmond, Virginia, in the United States, she ran a supply relief drive to collect medical supplies, baby essentials, toiletries and over the counter medication, among other things.

The country, currently in the midst of an economic crisis, has seen the prices of basic goods rise as inflation set in months ago, and for many, essential items have now become unaffordable.

“I cannot tell that organizing this makes me feel great because I would much rather be on the ground helping, but at least it gives us a little bit of satisfaction knowing that we are making a difference,” Khoury explained. “This all happened because of the support among the expats...everybody came together.”

Spreading the word

In addition to donating and participating in vigils, London born and raised, Louay Faour, said he is contributing by spreading the word and informing his foreign friends on the situation in Lebanon.

“We are trying to spread awareness as much as we can through social media and share the news as much as possible,” 27-year-old Faour said.

Glued to his TV to watch the news and stay updated, Faour said that he was still in a state of shock.

A man sits between debris inside his house damaged by Tuesday's explosion in the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon on Aug. 7, 2020. (AP)
A man sits between debris inside his house damaged by Tuesday's explosion in the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon on Aug. 7, 2020. (AP)

“As Lebanese living abroad I assure you that we are tired and our hearts are broken,” he said. “[All of this] is unfair. On top of all the crises that the country was facing, this is the last thing it needed.”

Lebanon has suffered from an acute economic crisis since mid-2019, and the Beirut port explosion has deepened an already dire situation.

For Diane Eid, who lives in San Francisco, it was not an easy sight for her to see damage and destruction covering half of Beirut.

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“I want to be in Lebanon during the bad times too, not only during the happy days. I want to take part in the rebuilding process, I don’t want to be far [away],” Eid, 22, said.

“There is a feeling of guilt for sure that I am here in America living my best life when people back home I grew up with, some of them my best friends, cannot even live.”

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