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Community engagement initiatives help local residents in Beirut

02 Oct 2020

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Anula Armao is taking each day at a time and learning to live with her new reality following the Beirut port explosions in August. Credit: OCHA/Rita Maingi

By Rita Maingi, OCHA Humanitarian Affairs Officer in Lebanon

The events of 4 August 2020 in Beirut, Lebanon, will be forever etched in 74-year-old Anula Armao’s mind and body. When the Beirut Port exploded, she had just left her balcony to get coffee from her kitchen. She does not remember much after the loud bang, but found herself in a hospital after undergoing surgery to remove her right eye, which was completely damaged by flying glass.

Like many other Beirut residents, Anula is struggling to accept her fate and get back to a normal life. “I am a nail specialist and have done this for the past 40 years. I used to host clients in my house for pedicures and manicures,” she explains.

Now, however, most of her tools have been destroyed, and her house needs repair. At times, she wants to give up, but has been able to receive support from a local WhatsApp group started in her neighbourhood of Quarantina, some 2.2 km east of the Beirut port.

The group has been a source of solace to about 1,900 people, including 370 families. Since the explosions, Wissam Diab, one of Quarantina’s residents, has taken it upon himself to coordinate support for people in the neighbourhood. “We have at least 600 elderly people – all above 70 years old – in this neighbourhood, and they need support even to get around.” Elevators in most of the apartment buildings were destroyed, making movement for older people challenging.

The WhatsApp group has also been a great resource for Dolly Nassif, who lives with her 90-year-old mother on the eighth floor of an apartment building. In the days following the explosions, she would post requests to the group and neighbours would offer assistance.

“When I needed to take my mother to the hospital several times, a few young men came and helped to carry her down to the car from our house,” Dolly says with a smile.
200 people died in the explosions, while at least 6,500 were injured.

Wissam also organizes events for the community through the group, including communal meals – especially for those without food – and concerts to fundraise for different needs. He has, for example, coordinated support for elevator repairs and donations for fridges and microwaves – all from well-wishers. “Many well-wishers have heard about our group and continue to reach out to bring their contributions,” he says.

Wissam attends weekly coordination meetings in Quarantina led by the local non-governmental organization (NGO) Offrejoie, which feeds into the national Emergency Operations Cell structure, which promotes community engagement and identifies gaps for effective response. Several local initiatives on community engagement have been started to fill critical gaps in capturing community voices in response to the port explosions.

The Lebanon Humanitarian and Development NGO Forum (LHDF), through its partners, has established two physical help desks in the neighbourhoods of Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh. The help desks are solely manned by volunteers. Sarah-Jane Antoun, a third-year biochemistry student at Lebanon University, has been listening to and helping people in Gemmayzeh since early September.

The majority of the people coming to the desks are elderly who lost everything from the explosions and mostly need medication for pre-existing conditions, food, and for their shelters to be repaired, as they are anxious about the upcoming winter season.

An elderly man talks to volunteers at the Gemmayzeh help desk. Credit: OCHA/Rita Maingi

OCHA has provided the teams with an overview of humanitarian principles and guidelines on protection against sexual exploitation and abuse , and other information to share with those visiting the help desks. LHDF is working on establishing five more help desks in the coming weeks.

OCHA and other partners are working to establish a common complaints and feedback mechanism by consolidating community voices and reflecting them in strategic documents.