Diamond in the rough: Lebanon’s youth step in for an absent state after Beirut blast

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Walking through Beirut’s devastated Gemayzeh Street, young women and men carry their brooms and trash bags, moving from one spot to another to help remove the rubble resulting from Tuesday’s Beirut Port explosion.

The main street has largely been cleaned, but not with government help. Instead, Lebanon’s youth collectively took the initiative to clean up.

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“I came Wednesday to help after the explosion and then I came back today [Saturday]. I am very surprised by the work that has been done,” Raoul Rafael Sfeyer told Al Arabiya English, reflecting on the results of peoples’ quick response after the tragic explosion. “Almost everything has been removed from the middle of the street.”

Coming from Jounieh, over 20 kilometers north of Beirut, Sfeyer said that in the aftermath of the blast, he joined a WhatsApp group to better know how he could help.

Resting on the pavement, holding his broom, Sfeyer said he and others visited residents in their homes to offer help. “Many of them asked whether we could take part in cleaning their houses or in front of their buildings,” he said. “We were also helping in putting covers at the damaged doors or windows.”

While some people cleaned, others offered water, sandwiches, and food. Tents were also erected to collect food donations and another group provided first aid assistance.

The collective efforts of the Lebanese youth have been widely hailed, while the state was shamed and accused of falling short of handling its responsibilities in this regard. One main criticism among the people was the absence of the state.

“Honestly, we did not witness any presence of the state on the ground. All of this that we are seeing is the result of individual initiatives,” Sfeyer said.

“People are angry at the state … and they took on the role the state should be playing,” 24-year-old Rawad Fakhry, who was helping clean-up, said. “They are telling the state whether you act or not, we can handle it. We are the ones rebuilding Beirut, not you.”

Facing the Beirut Port, Gemayzeh was one of the most affected areas after the deadly explosion. The scenes of damaged buildings, shattered windows, broken walls and ceilings, and piles of debris, is constant throughout the region.

The massive explosion left over 150 dead and more than 6,000 injured. Dozens are still missing.

Shop owners have started to pick up the pieces of their businesses that were already suffering due to the country’s worsening economic crisis. Others were gathering whatever could be salvaged from their shops as they have been asked to leave due to the threat of collapsing buildings.

Taking a break from the cleaning spree, Nour al-Solh said that she felt as if every damaged house was her own. “It is our duty to be on the ground and to help those affected,” Solh said.

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The 28-year-old has been assisting since Wednesday, offering her help either by removing the debris off the street or by cleaning homes.

“Despite all the damage that has been caused, when you come down to the streets, you can see the solidarity among the people,” she said.

Solh and her friend Elias Feghaly blasted members of the security forces and the Lebanese army, who were deployed on the street.

“It feels as if they are not concerned with what happened. It feels as if it was not their country that was damaged,” Solh said.

“You walk on the street and you see them standing. They should be helping the people rather than watching them work,” 29-year-old Feghaly said. “They should not wait for orders; each one of them should take the initiative to assist.”