I was at home in Cheltenham, writing, when my messages started going crazy. “Have you seen the news?”
“Turn on the news.”
“You heard the news?”
Whatever the news was, it was obviously bad. But I didn’t automatically think of Lebanon, as I used to in the bad old days. Maybe it was another 9/11, another tsunami, another Chernobyl? I flicked to a news outlet on my phone and saw the massive explosion in Beirut and went into shock.
Growing up, as I did, in Lebanon, you tended to get pretty used to terrible news from the place. For such a small country, three times smaller than Belgium, it has certainly suffered way more than its fair share of horror. This month’s explosion, however, cut me to the core. It was personal and, for once, it wasn’t the result of war.
My family have been shipping agents in Beirut port since 1900. My sister’s office overlooks the port. The massive grain silo that stood right next to the explosion was so incredibly familiar to me. As a kid, I could see it out of my dad’s office. I could see it from the balcony of our family home above Beirut. To me it was the physical centrepiece of our family’s history in Lebanon. In one horrific second it was blown apart, along with a massive part of Beirut. My sister, thank God, was at home. But her office, like vast swathes of Beirut, was a write-off. The port, the lifeblood of this coastal nation was utterly devastated, dealing a shattering blow to an already crippled economy.
Two years ago, I wrote a book called The Hezbollah Hiking Club in which I documented my walk across the length of Lebanon with two friends.
The book was a love letter to Lebanon. It was intended to try and change the people’s attitudes to the place. Whenever Lebanon came up, people immediately associated it with war and violence. The term “looks like Beirut” became a catchphrase for anywhere that looked beaten up or destroyed. Lebanon was undergoing economic problems for sure, but the war was long over, and Beirut had been rebuilt. It was time for a reassessment of the place. It was time for people to see the country as I did, as one of the most beautiful places in the world. The ski slopes, the beaches, the pine forests, the cedars, the food, the people…so warm, so cultured, so inspiring in the face of everything that had been thrown at them… and then this. An accident that has left more than 300,000 people homeless in a country where, due to the massive influx of people fleeing the war in Syria, roughly one in four people is a refugee.
As an ambassador for Save the Children I’d already been out to see what they were doing for children in camps like Zaatari on the Jordanian border. Now, they are on the ground in Beirut and working overtime to help the estimated 100,000 homeless children who are hurt, shocked and often separated from their parents. I know we all have our own problems right now with the Covid-19 pandemic and its effect on the economy but just try to imagine those issues intermingled with the after-effects of this devastating explosion?
Among a number of charitable efforts, Save the Children is helping to reunite children with their parents and is securing homes that lost their windows and doors in the explosion. Over the next weeks and months, they will also be repairing more seriously damaged homes and schools, and delivering urgently needed food and hygiene supplies to the people who most need them.
Lebanon is a crucial piece in the Middle East puzzle. Instability there directly affects the whole region and, consequently, Europe and beyond. Lebanon deserves a chance to rebuild itself as a beacon of democracy and hope in a historically unstable part of the world. In the words of Khalil Gibran, one of Lebanon’s most famous sons:
“Pity the nation that raises not its voice save when it walks in a funeral, boasts not except among its ruins…”
Dom Joly is a comedian and travel writer
For more information about Save the Children’s emergency fund, which is supporting the response in Lebanon, click here
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