Lebanon’s diaspora, estimated at nearly three times the size of the tiny country’s population of five million, has stepped up to provide assistance following the massive explosion that laid waste to the capital Beirut.
Lebanese expats rushed to wire money to loved ones who lost their homes or were injured in the blast on Tuesday that killed at least 135 people, while others worked to create special funds to address the tragedy.
“I’ve been on the phone all morning with … our partners in order to put together an alliance for an emergency fund in light of the explosion,” said George Akiki, co-founder and CEO of LebNet, a non-profit based in California’s Silicon Valley that helps Lebanese professionals in the United States and Canada.
“Everyone, both Lebanese and non-Lebanese, wants to help.”
Akiki said his group, along with other organisations such as SEAL and Life Lebanon, have set up Beirut Emergency Fund 2020, which will raise much-needed money and channel it to safe and reputable organisations in Lebanon.
Many Lebanese expats, who almost all have loved ones or friends affected by the disaster, are also helping individually or have started online fundraisers.
“As a first step, my wife Hala and I will match at least $10,000 in donations and later on we will provide more help towards rebuilding and other projects,” Habib Haddad, a tech entrepreneur and member of LebNet based in Boston, Massachusetts, told AFP news agency.
He said many fellow compatriots are doing the same, channelling their grief and anger towards helping their stricken homeland, which before the explosion was already reeling from a deep economic and political crisis that has left more than half the population living in poverty.
“They’re asking Lebanese emigrants around the world to try and help,” said Maroun Daccache, owner of a Lebanese restaurant in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a country that has an estimated seven million people of Lebanese descent.
“I’m trying to help with something but here the business is not very good because of the pandemic. Still, we are much better off than those over there,” Daccache said.
‘Terrible and heartbreaking’
Even before the tragedy, Lebanon heavily relied on its diaspora for cash remittances but these inflows had slowed in the last year given the country’s political crisis.
Expats also usually visit home every summer, injecting much-needed cash into the economy. But the diaspora this year has largely been absent because of the COVID-19 pandemic and many had become increasingly sceptical and reluctant to send aid to a country where corruption is widespread and permeates all levels of society.
“People are outraged by the mismanagement of the country and they want to help, but no one trusts the people in charge,” said Najib Khoury-Haddad, a tech entrepreneur in the San Francisco area, echoing the feeling of many Lebanese leery of giving money to a dysfunctional government.
“I heard that the government has set up a relief fund but who would trust them?” he asked.
Ghislaine Khairalla, 55, of Washington, DC, said one idea being floated was to pair a needy family in Beirut with one outside the country that could provide a safe and direct source of assistance.
“We [the diaspora] are the financial bloodline especially since the economy is not going to recover anytime soon,” Khairalla, whose brother’s home was reduced to rubble by the blast, said. “And we are lucky to have a kind of stable life here. We are physically outside Lebanon but our hearts and emotions are there.”
Nayla Habib, a Lebanese-Canadian who lives in Montreal, said she planned to help in whatever way she can and expressed outrage at reports that the blast was caused by more than 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at the Beirut port, which is located in the heart of the densely populated city.
“My God, the state of our country is terrible and heartbreaking,” Habib told AFP. “I donated before the blast to a lady that helps feed the poor and I will donate again.
“Whatever I give is like a drop in the ocean but it’s necessary. I live in Canada but part of my heart is still there.”