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I think our country sinks beneath the yoke;
It weeps, it bleeds; and each new day a gash
Is added to her wounds.
It’s a long way from the bleak, windswept moors of 11th century Scotland to the sun-drenched Mediterranean port of modern Beirut. Yet the words spoken by Malcolm, the Scottish prince in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth, succinctly describe the current situation of Lebanon.
The cataclysmic explosion last Tuesday that shook Beirut to its foundations, leaving 157 people dead, 5000 injured, and 300,000 homeless, was the coup de grâce for a country that was bleeding for years under crushing burdens.
It was shortly after 6:00 pm Beirut time when 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse exploded without warning.
Splintering glass, billowing clouds of smoke, blood-spattered streets and injured people staggering in pain, —the sights and sounds of Beirut subsequently dominating traditional and social media channels are beyond heartrending—and eerily resemble pictures of the atomic explosion in Hiroshima which surfaced on August 6, its 75th anniversary.
The Beirut explosion seems like the denouement to the unfolding tragedy of Lebanon, a country where high unemployment, an economic meltdown, burdensome taxes, staggering inflation that left its currency virtually useless, and covid-19 were already taking their toll.
These problems pale beside the one that has pervaded life in Lebanon for decades. A corrupt, kleptocratic government that has no qualms about stealing tax payers’ money with the same callous disdain that Marie Antoinette of French revolution fame showed when she allegedly said: “If they can’t have bread let them eat brioche.” This was in response to her famine-stricken peoples’ pleas for help.
That Lebanon is ruled by a corrupt government that has kept its stranglehold on power for decades is no secret.
The Canadian government immediately announced that it was providing $5 million to help meet the urgent needs of people affected by the crisis, with $1.5 million going immediately to trusted humanitarian partners on the ground, including the Lebanese Red Cross.
International Development Minister Karina Gould has pointedly stated that Canadian aid will be funnelled to "trusted" humanitarian organizations, and not be directed to the Lebanese government
“Trusted humanitarian partners on the ground” is a key phrase to be noted by Canadians with personal ties to Lebanon, and others moved to help by sheer humanitarian impulse.
Fortunately for Lebanon, there are several trustworthy and reputable humanitarian organizations—besides the Lebanese Red Cross—working diligently on the ground, providing desperately needed assistance in the form of food and medical supplies to the grievously wounded. With years of experience on the ground, their workers have personal ties with the country, and are moved by a genuine desire to walk in solidarity with those they serve.
Fundraising efforts by these organizations and their supporters have gone into overdrive, and have met with a generous response.
The small Sweden-based NGO A Demand for Action (ADFA) has a stellar reputation for directing almost all of its funds to benefit those in need, while keeping administrative costs to the minimum. Staffed entirely by volunteers, it has had years of experience working in Beirut with refugees who had fled violence and faith-based persecution in neighbouring countries such as Iraq and Syria.
Many of its supporters are Middle Eastern Christians with deep personal ties to Lebanon, which they see as a country— despite all its flaws— as one where they or their families had found shelter and freedom of worship when they fled genocide in their homelands.
“The refugees we help are in a very bad situation,” Nuri Kino the leader of the NGO said in an interview shortly after the explosion. “Their homes in structurally fragile ghetto buildings have been destroyed.”
Kino said that ADFA had been able to switch gears quickly, and had expanded its service to anyone who was affected by the explosion, not only the refugees who have been under their care for years.
“Many people have asked if we work with the government (of Lebanon), and the answer is a very definite ‘no, we are independent,’” Kino emphasized.
The NGO had raised over $80,000 US by Friday in an emergency fundraising appeal. Its local volunteers are distributing food and water in the streets of Beirut. Milling throngs of starving people, too distraught to heed volunteers’ appeals to observe social distancing rules, are desperately scrambling for what they can get.
“We are well positioned to adapt to the chaos quickly," Kino said in response to a question about challenges, including food shortages, posed by the catastrophe. “It’s difficult to find groceries in the city but we are well connected all over the country and have been buying like crazy from elsewhere. Today we have been delivering in Burj Hammoud, the Armenian suburb of Beirut. We have special permission from the municipality and the army to do this because it’s under lockdown.”
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Beirut’s Armenian community is an example of a group that survived the genocide of 1915, and has rebuilt their lives in Lebanon.
On Sunday, all the Armenian Apostolic Churches in Canada held a special requiem service in memory of those who lost their lives in the explosion. The diocese has established a Beirut Explosion Relief Fund.
“The donations will be directed to the families of innocent victims through the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin,” Armenian Primate Bishop Abgar Hovakimyan said in his appeal.
Marie-Claude Lalonde, Canadian director of Aid to the Church in need (ACN), told Convivium in an e-mail exchange that the leading Catholic charity had rushed a first emergency sum of $362,500 to help feed people who have lost everything: “Their homes, their livelihood as well as loved ones, relatives and friends.”
“We are monitoring the situation carefully and are in regular contact with the Bishops and Patriarchs who will also receive and manage the allocated funds directly, as is the way ACN functions in all cases, and without intermediate intervention. We will definitely help again when needed. It is but a beginning phase of our help,” Lalonde said.
ACN, too, has had years of experience in providing relief in countries with multiple problems including corruption, war, nepotism, and rampant poverty.
“We never associate with the local governments or transfer help through them, that way we are certain the money reaches directly those in need. We have a long-established relationship with local bishops and religious communities and we work exclusively with them. We encourage people to be generous and to pray for our brothers and sisters going through very difficult moments,” she said.
Catholic Near East Welfare Agency (CNEWA) is another well-known NGO that has been at the service of the churches and peoples of Lebanon and other countries for decades, providing relief to all who are suffering and those who have fallen through the cracks, especially those facing homelessness and in need of medical care and food.
“CNEWA Canada will leverage most of its resources to support the campaign— social media, website, advertisements and personal and appeals to its generous donor base,” Canadian director Carl Hétu said in a press release.” Funds raised will be directed to the CNEWA office in Beirut which, in turn, will share with local churches that offer essential health and emergency services and pastoral outreach.”
The faith-based organizations that Convivium contacted stressed that while the lethal explosion affects all communities, one cannot over-estimate the importance of sending aid to a country brought to its knees by the catastrophe—but which nevertheless represents a ray of hope for religious pluralism in the Middle East.
“With all the major issues devastating Lebanon, this week’s horrific incident only deepens what many describe as an existential catastrophe not only for Lebanon as a nation, but for the existence of a culturally and religiously diverse Middle East,” said CNEWA president Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari. “CNEWA recalls the words of St. John Paul II, who reminded the world that Lebanon is not just a country, but a message."