This is probably not the first article you read that reflects back on the events of August 4, 2020, and it definitely will not be the only article you read. For every resident in Lebanon and every Lebanese globally, 6:07 PM on Tuesday, August 4, 2020 marks the darkest day they can recount. Every person on Lebanese soil collectively experienced the largest non-clear explosion in history that destroyed their capital, killed 208 innocent civilians, thrusted over 300,000 individuals into homelessness, and left an entire nation traumatized.
Whatever you read about this day after the passing of 365 days, and whatever we all try to communicate about the tragedies of what happened a year ago and explain the heartache of our people, we will never be able to relay the permanency and gravity of the loss, hurt, and grief that millions of Lebanese continue to live in while also still living under the same ruling class responsible for the tragedy.
A quick google search about the facts, details, and national/international investigations of what happened on that day would lead you to notice that not much has been done to bring justice to a nation that has been left to bleed economically, humanitarianly, socially, emotionally, and politically since then. Facts about the cause of the blast are scarce and the cite of the explosion remains as is: An abandoned crime scene that leaves many questions unanswered to the family of the victims and to the Lebanese people as a whole. Most Lebanese who work in Beirut even have to drive by that crime scene on a daily basis, reminded that somehow their lives must continue despite the heartache.
Many surveys are circulating across social media platforms about the effects of PTSD on those who survived, about survivors’ guilt, about mental health awareness, and psychological support. These questionnaires only try to quantify the grief and categorize it into digestible pieces, but the Lebanese still wake up the next morning to an ever-deteriorating Lebanese Lira, scarcity of fuel, power outages, medicine shortages, and the complete dismantling of their quality of life.
To put things into perspective as to what that meant for Heart for Lebanon, the ministry’s Beirut offices and headquarters are less than 3 miles away from the epicenter of the blast. Most of the Heart for Lebanon Beirut team lives within that same radius of the blast and can share individual experiences of loss on that day. One team member shares about the miraculous way she was spared by running late to a wedding that she was going to attend less than a mile from the explosion that evening. A number of team members suffered damages to their apartments, and many more lived through the horrifying experience of long hours of survival check-ins from friends and family hearing news after news after news of whether the people they knew were dead or alive. As one team member explained it so well: “the explosion did not happen at the Beirut port, it happened inside every single apartment in Beirut.” What happened on August 4, literally extended to each team member’s home.
For me personally, it had been exactly a week since I left Beirut to pursue a J.D. at Regent University’s school of law. I argued with my dad (Camille Melki; Heart for Lebanon co-founder) for days to move my travel date forward from August 4th, to July 29th. If I had not won that argument, I would have been driving along that same route on that same day headed towards the airport. As for my grandmother May Abboud Melki, took to her piano immediately after seeing her damaged apartment, with no words to express herself other than to play a tune of Auld Lang Syne before the 78-year-old mustered up the strength to think through how to move forward after already raising a family through a 15-year Lebanese war of 1975 and surviving multiple attacks.
The Restore Beirut Initiative
On August 5th, Heart for Lebanon’s Managing Director gave a tearful message while addressing the entire Heart for Lebanon staff as teams from the Bekaa and the South of Lebanon came to support the response on the ground in Beirut. The response was organic, it was raw, and it was difficult because it was the first time that every person working was both a victim and a first responder.
After five teams from Heart for Lebanon were divided across the city to spend the first several days cleaning up debris, the strategy started to become more evident that Heart for Lebanon was best positioned to respond in supporting churches that were destroyed, Christian schools that were affected, and any families that were connected to either one of those two categories. A week after the blast, the Restore Beirut team organized itself and got to work. Lead by Elio Constantine, a team of five members began to venture into a new project and assessing material damage that was caused to the apartments of families that were referred to us by church members or affiliated schools. The team quickly noticed that the immediate need was to secure apartments and to try and restore a sense of safety for families to be able to retreat to their own home with a peace of mind that at the very least they had a secured front door and that their windows were sealed. Therefore, the first response was to hire contractors who would ensure that all doors and windows of damaged apartments be restored for safety and security reasons.
The work had to be done fast as families were pressing through their trauma and leaning heavily on Heart for Lebanon team members for emotional and physical support. One such family is Simon and Rola’s family. As a team member narrates to me the story from her recent visit to Simon and Rola’s place she said: “During our visit, Rola was in her living room watching TV as she prepared a Lebanese dish for her family. When Simon started telling us about what happened that day, Rola started to get emotional, she got so emotional and repeatedly kept saying how she still cannot believe that her husband is alive. She said, “He was so close to the explosion, it all happened in a matter of seconds. I called him several times, but he didn’t answer so I assumed the worst had happened. Two hours later, I was breaking down, nothing was clear, the whole country was in shock, and watching the news wasn’t giving me any answers, until my husband called suddenly. I thanked God a million times for protecting him. If you knew how close he was you’d definitely understand what I went through”. We knew exactly how close Simon’s work was to the explosion, it was only a few feet away from where nearly 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate had just exploded, and in the most crowded street that contains many restaurants, shops, and old historic neighborhoods.”
Every family that the Restore Beirut Team visited, had a miraculous testimony. All have a story in which God has protected them as if preparing them for the explosion as many of them would share. The losses “should have been far greater” said one team member to me, “when you walk along every street and you hear the clinking of glass and the mass destruction that ripped through an entire city, and that was heard across the country, you cannot but declare it a miracle.”
As referrals were made from church and school networks about families in need, the Restore Beirut team also started to connect with families in need whom they would meet as they moved about the city. Out of the 95 units that were restored by Heart for Lebanon, most of those connections were made by a Restore Beirut team member who noticed a family in need and asked if they could help them. One such relationship was built with Carol. On August 4th, Carol was on the balcony with her grand-daughter Katrina, who is 6 years old, watching the flame rise from the Beirut port. Carol’s apartment is directly facing the Beirut Port. On that day, Katrina came to her grandmother’s house after summer school, ate lunch, and was just spending time on a regular Tuesday afternoon. A few minutes later, Carol recalls that she heard what sounded like fireworks at first and explained to Katrina that there was nothing to worry about. “I had the stove on, preparing dinner for my family, I was enjoying some quality time with my granddaughter too. Lately, I’ve been more present at home due to the covid-19 lockdown” Said Carol as she tearfully continued, “when the ‘fireworks’ got louder, I knew something was wrong, I turned off the stove, turned off the main electricity switch and ran to hold my granddaughter, whose eyes were full of fear at this point.”
Carol talks about the few moments that they went through, she said it felt like a long time of loss and chaos. “My sister who was at home with us broke her pelvis, I found out hours later. My daughter and I carried Katrina and ran downstairs trying to find refuge, we thought that a war had just started. Cynthia, my daughter, was barefoot, she walked over shattered glass for almost a mile. She kept on having surgeries to reconstruct the damage done to her feet until December 2020.”
Days after the explosion, and as the Heart for Lebanon Team was assessing the damage of apartments in the area, they met Carol who knew she needed to ask for help. This was the beginning of a unique relationship that the team cultivated with Carol which turned into many visits, prayers, and quality around the message of the Gospel as the restoration to her apartment was taking place.
As for the team themselves, a week after the blast and after 7 straight days of over 10 hours of work picking up glass, and salvaging people’s belongings from whatever was left, the Heart for Lebanon team gathered and sang songs of praise in a damaged living room. A team member shared with me that it was at that moment that the tears came rushing through. The shock had subsided, and the tears did not stop. In another instance, a prayer that united leaders from across the nation to seek God’s wisdom and guidance in responding to the crisis was held shortly after the blast at which Camille Melki, Heart for Lebanon’s founder said: “we should all allow ourselves to cry, but the hardest thing for me has been my inability to do so. I have been asking God repeatedly, when God? When will those tears come rushing down? When will I truly be able to feel again after this paralyzing shock?” But the tragic stories continued with every apartment that the team went into. One team member shared with me his concerns before going in to meet the first family. He said he did not feel prepared to handle what he knew would be the needs because this was a community that was deeply scarred by the Lebanese 1975 war and now has compounded trauma. He was expecting resistance, bitterness, rage, and a rebellion against God. However, he said that in every encounter it was as if the Lord had gone before them and people’s hearts were somehow ready to give praise to the God of miracles for whatever they had left.
After doors and windows were sealed, churches were rebuilt, and schools began functional again, but the Restore Beirut team knew that they were not ready to leave yet. The financial and economic situation is unbearable, and families have not been able to recover since the blast as things continue to get worse. Heart for Lebanon provided food and hygiene portions to families it served until December 2020. Since December, relationships continue to grow, and needs continue to be assessed and the next phase of Restore Beirut will launch in a different form in 2021-2022.
August 4, 2021
Today, Heart for Lebanon does not celebrate the efforts or accomplishments or initiatives that it has been thrust into over the last year in response to the Beirut port explosion.
Today, Heart for Lebanon does not celebrate the increasing need that has been created because of man-made atrocities and negligence.
Today, Heart for Lebanon does not celebrate the needs that the local church is having and the increased challenges it has to remain and to advance the Kingdom, here in Beirut.
Today, Beirut has not been restored.
But today, those who remain and those who share this experience are here to share the stories of God’s multiple miraculous encounters that saved their lives and sustained their wounds to live to today.
Today, for every survivor there is a story that points to God, the one who is merciful and who heals.
Today, stories of restoration are not of windows and doors, but rather of people and souls.
It might sound hard to actually look over this past year and say that there were God moments that brought us closer to Him when we see the depth of the hurt of many that we know. When we know of three young children who lost their mother in front of their eyes and a young man whose only mistake was that he was lying in his bed and died due to the injuries he sustained, it is hard to find goodness in the midst of evil and hope in the midst of despair. However, for the hundreds of families who collectively received over 8,000 food supplement packages and non-food supplies, hope was found in the way that the Heart for Lebanon team showed the love of Jesus Christ through tangible and meaningful ways. The same is true for the residents of the 95 apartments, 19 churches, and 6 schools that Heart for Lebanon was able to stand with. This is only a small symbol of Christ’s abundant love, mercy, and grace, on the people of Lebanon who live to tell the heart wrenching stories of August 4, 2020, but also the miraculous stories of August 4, 2020.
The opportunities that are present before us today are not unique but are rather simple: cultivate the relationships with those who share the same experiences. Today Heart for Lebanon shares sad and joyful memories with churches, schools, and families directly affected by the blast that it will be able to grow into fruitful relationships that continue to point to the one who is the source of our hope and the reason for our strength.