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August 4, 2021

Lebanon, one year after the blast that left 300,000 people in Beirut homeless

Before August 4th 2020, the country was already in a state of emergency, and it continues today. In this article, AVSI’s Country Representative in Lebanon, Marina Molino Lova, explains how the explosion has aggravated an already dramatic situation.

“Every day, the situation in the country is getting worse. We are in free fall, on the verge of a civil war. We lack basic goods, the health system is collapsing, and we only have power for a few hours a day,” says Marina.  

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Text by Anna Spena and photos by Davide Arcuri

Originally published by Vita

A year ago, the attention was focused on the immediate emergency in Lebanon. On August 4th, 2020, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate left abandoned in the Beirut port without any safety measures exploded. The blast killed over 207 people, injured 7,000, and left 300,000 people homeless.  

Currently, the country has a population of 4 million Lebanese, 1.5 million Syrian refugees, and 0.5 million Palestinian refugees. In the months preceding the explosion, the country had fallen into an unprecedented economic crisis. The public debt had grown so much that Lebanon became the third most indebted country in the world (152% debt to GDP ratio), forcing the government to file for bankruptcy in March 2020. It looked like things could not get any worse.

"Instead, the situation is just getting worse, and the Lebanese are humiliated a little bit more every day," says AVSI's Country Representative in Lebanon, Marina Molino Lova. “Everyone feels that we are on a rapid decline. For a year now, there have been no solutions or ways out. We are genuinely on the verge of a civil war. And this is not a remote hypothesis, but the reality in which we are quickly falling ".

In the days following the explosion, AVSI’s social workers identified the needs of the most affected families, considering their past situations of vulnerability. At the same time, a technical team of engineers carried out structural assessment of the damage to their homes.  

“Thanks to AVSI’s #LoveBeirut fundraising campaign, 40 days after the explosion that changed the life of the city, 18 homes and 6 businesses had been restored. As of January 2021, we had rebuilt a total of 189 buildings, including small businesses,” says Marina, adding that nowadays AVSI’s is still working to respond to the essential and immediate needs of the most vulnerable families. “We work on mental health and distribution of medicines, as well as rebuilding the city’s social fabric (young, old, disabled) through protection and civic awareness activities.” 

The inflation rate in Lebanon only knows one direction: up. The upward trend has continued for months, and today essential goods cost ten times more than just a few months back.  

"A liter of milk was 2,000 Lebanese pounds, and now it costs 22,000. A kilo of meat was 25,000 Lebanese pounds, and today, it costs almost 300,000. And tomorrow?" wonders Marina.

The unemployment rate in the country is 40%, but they say might be an underestimation. An average salary in Lebanon reaches 1.5 million Lebanese pounds, less than USD 100, per month. Public employees earn even less than 1 million.  

“Beirut used to be what was left of Lebanon’s economy,” continues Marina, “but after the explosion, offices were destroyed, shops closed and never reopened.” 

Humiliation for the Lebanese citizens also means to  live without electricity. “Or rather: before the explosion, the government guaranteed 12 hours of energy a day; for the other 12, there were generators. Now, the government gives one hour of energy a day. For the other 23, there is the generator,” says Marina.  

But who can afford that? Instead, people resort to using candles because running a generator costs from 800,000 to 1.6 million Lebanese pounds. The average salary, for the few who can still earn it, is 1.5 million.  

Children are also starving. In a new study, UNICEF shows that little ones bear the brunt of the economic collapse. 77% of families cannot afford to buy food for their children, and 15% have interrupted their education. One in 10 children has been sent to work, and one in three goes to bed without a decent dinner. 

“The explosion also had a devastating effect on the health system,” continues AVSI’s Country Representative. “At the beginning of last August, Lebanon was on lockdown. Back then, the pandemic was out of control. In the following months, the hospital’s intensive care filled up”.

But which hospitals? The largest hospital in the country, and the most important one, was in Beirut, and the blast destroyed it.  

"The health system is on its knees," adds Marina. "The social and economic crisis has created a doctors' diaspora: 1,500 specialized doctors have left the country. There is a shortage of doctors and basic medicines, tools to perform surgical operations, and those for specialist visits. Only those who can prove that they have millions of Lebanese pounds in the bank, a sort of bail, can enter the hospital".

Tripoli remains the most complex city.  

“It is the cradle of extreme poverty, and it is a hot spot, from a political point of view.”  

Those who still manage to live in Lebanon are families supported by the Lebanese diaspora, which is made up of 15 million people who live abroad and “send money home.” Those who still manage to survive are the very wealthy who have sensed the problems and moved their money overseas. 

“AVSI is working on agricultural projects and food security to ensure that Lebanese farmers do not lose the production season, and, with them, Syrian refugees so they do not lose their jobs as workers,” says Marina. “We have distributed material, soil, pots, plants, tools, seeds, and offered courses to teach people how to start an agricultural activity and create a small vegetable garden. We are also training young women to produce cheese and yogurt for family consumption, jams, bread, and pickled vegetables, and we involve the Municipalities with community cultivation programs in favor of the poorest in the rural areas of North and South Lebanon.” 

Thanks to the support of UNICEF, Education Cannot Wait, and the European Union through the project “Back to the Future,” AVSI also continues to focus on young children, who by now, due to first the protests and then the pandemic, have not been able to go to school since October 2019. Over the last two years, AVSI has adapted all educational modules to distance learning, offering a great deal of support for parents who are increasingly involved in the education of their children. 

“We produce and distribute masks and continue to organize activities to create awareness on how to avoid the spread of the virus, such as information sessions in informal camps for Syrians, vaccination campaigns, telephone and social media messages to beneficiaries and teachers involved in our projects and the distribution of sanitation kits (soaps), and food and recreational kits in informal camps for Syrian refugees,” lists Marina. 

The only solution for the country is a political one.  

"We face a paradox: the money to support the population is there, it comes from Europe, in particular from France, from the Gulf countries, but those funds remain unusable because they are conditioned to a commitment made by the Government to carry out reforms the population has needed for years," explains AVSI's Country Representative. "Reforms related to water, electricity, and public health. But there is no government in Lebanon and we always have to wait.”

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