Lebanese get to work to clean up after Beirut explosion in face of government absence

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With the government failing to act, Lebanese have banded together once again to support those in need in the wake of Tuesday’s deadly blast at the Beirut port that left at least 145 dead and some 300,000 homeless.

The country faces a crippling economic crisis, the coronavirus pandemic and decades-long governmental failure.

A number of local firms that specialize in design, architecture, carpentry, along with non-governmental organizations, have been offering services around the clock to help rebuild shattered homes and buildings. The damage is estimated to cost up to $15 billion, according to government estimates.

The Skaff Group was among those who immediately stepped up. The furnishing and design company, founded by Georges Skaff in 1965, said it would donate fabrics to temporarily cover broken windows in an announcement on their Instagram page.

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“This is the least we can do,” said representative Tala Skaff, who is the founder’s daughter-in-law, in an interview with Al Arabiya English. “Everyone is wishing to give out a helping hand in however they know and can. Fabrics is our area of expertise and we have already received plenty of calls.”

“We thought that getting glass right now is going to be very difficult for everyone, and basically, we thought how can we help? We need to do it and act fast. Everyone is doing the same because we rely on each other rather than on the government for aid,” she explained.

So far, the company has directly collaborated with NGOs, such as Beit El Baraka, to deliver fabric to disaster zones that require the most help.

Some of the Skaff’s branches in Beirut were also damaged in the blasts, but the company’s staff was not injured.

People gather to light candles to mourn the victims of Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, at Martyrs' Square in Beirut. (Reuters)
People gather to light candles to mourn the victims of Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, at Martyrs' Square in Beirut. (Reuters)

“We’re in complete disbelief and shock. No words can describe this experience. I’ve lived through and grew up in the civil war here in Lebanon, but this is beyond anything we’ve lived,” she said.

Many carpenting companies have been working to help repair ruined doors and windows, including the Beirut firm WeWood, which was founded three years ago by brothers Mike and Peter Abou Mrad.

The duo has been offering pro bono services to people in neighborhoods particularly hard-hit from the explosion, including Gemmayze, Downtown, and Clemenceau areas.

Wood and glass contractor Karp n’ Tree, run by architects Razan Zaatari and Sara Sayed, have begun work to assess the extent of the damage and are working with a team of volunteers.

After sharing her contact details on Instagram, Zaatari’s phone rang off the hook as repair requests flooded in.

Government nowhere to be found

Zaatari, 30, echoed the anger expressed by a majority of Lebanese toward the negligent political class.

“The government is not doing anything at this point,” she commented. “Everywhere you go, you see young people with brooms helping everyone remove glass.”

“This should be the work of the government, the municipalities, the army and internal forces,” she continued. “No official has done anything. The French president is the first politician to go to the ground and assess something – our president did not do that. He read a heartless speech over a laptop with zero emotional support.”

The firm’s team of carpenters has repaired more than 60 doors for free.

“Repairing damage is something we can afford as a small company,” Zaatari explained. “But, some doors are damaged beyond repair and they need to be replaced. We closed them off so that people can feel safe. They don’t feel safe and believe it or not, on the first night that this happened, a lot of theft was recorded.”

People clean debris from the street following Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, Lebanon August 8, 2020. (Reuters)
People clean debris from the street following Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area, Lebanon August 8, 2020. (Reuters)

In the long run, however, more funding is required to help rebuild and repair victims’ homes. This led the firm to launch a GoFundMe campaign, hoping to raise money to help with long-term reconstruction efforts.

Meanwhile, 27-year-old architect Elie Saliba also turned to social media, sharing his commitment to offer free consultancy, renovation tips, structure assessments, and other architectural and interior design services. In 2017, Saliba opened his own Byblos-based firm Saliba Architects, where his small team of design consultants has developed a variety of luxury architectural projects in Lebanon, Cyprus, Congo, among other places.

“It’s a catastrophe. We are all lost and don’t know where to start,” he said.

Read more:

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Saliba added that he visited different parts of Beirut to help his friends clean up the mess. Although Saliba’s team is willing to offer initial free services, he stressed that renovation is more than just clearing the rubble and calling it a day. It is, on a deeper level, a complex, multilayered job, requiring clarification on insurance concerns and much greater assistance from the government.

“We are ready to help,” said Saliba, who has been contacted by a few affected people for professional advice. “In the end, it’s my country and I want to be of service in any way possible, but we are waiting to see who will be responsible for covering costs.”

In his view, what needs to be implemented is a long-term master plan that will assess how much physical labor and funding is needed, and such plan should be compiled with a sense of unity and cooperation among architectural firms.

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