By Hasina Kathrada
It is just after sunset as we walk up a narrow, dark pathway to the home of two sisters and a father in Lebanon’s capital city, Beirut. Seven months ago, they lived in another home with their mother, an older sister Dima, and the youngest, Jude. But life changed for thousands of people in this city on August 4, when approximately 2 750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate ignited and set off a massive blast, killing 250 people. The strength of the blast makes it the second largest non-nuclear explosion recorded in modern history.
Now a family of three, 18-year-old Diaana, 16-year-old Dima and their dad welcome us into their new home, as the first women’s volunteer group from the South African humanitarian organisation Africa Muslims Agency (AMA), to see first-hand the extent of its relief efforts on the ground. AMA’s aid extends across 14 countries, including South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Yemen and Afghanistan. Through different projects, they provide food, water, shelter, education and medical assistance to people in need.
We come here knowing details of Diaana’s horrific story from the day of the blast: she survived for 11 hours under the rubble, and woke up in a hospital to the news that her younger sister Jude and her eldest sister Dilma had not survived. Diaana already knew that her mother had not survived, as she had lain beside her mother under the crushing weight of the rubble, and had held her mother’s end through the ordeal.
Diaana is still taking her first steps with a walking aid, so Dima shows us around the new home. We gather around Dima’s phone to watch a video of little Jude dancing. On Dima’s dressing table, we see a teddy bear, which Dima tells us was Jude’s favourite and which she, Dima, managed to salvage from the ruins. Their dad watches without saying much. His eyes swell as the girls show us a recent picture of their mum with her all daughters except Dima. Now Dima regrets refusing to be in the photograph.
I go to bed that night with a heavy heart.
In the days that follow, I see first-hand the impact on peoples’ lives of the country’s worst economic crisis in decades. Since October 2019, when thousands took to the streets in protest, the Lebanese pound has tumbled to record lows; it has lost 70% of its value. Millions of Lebanese have seen their savings and salaries wiped out. Then came Covid early last year, adding to an already undeniable pain.
On the way to the port to the scene of the blast, we pass crumbling grain silos. These are strange and ghostly “heroes”, having absorbed 70 percent of the explosion and thus shielding half of Beirut from even more devastating destruction. Now, seven months later, our group rummages through heaps of rubble in the nearby neighbourhoods, and we pick up the scraps of belongings, once the property of people whose homes blew apart in the explosion.
One of those homes belonged to Mirna. A single mother in her thirties, Mirna works two jobs to provide for her parents and for her young son, Chris. AMA has rebuilt Mirna’s home, fulfilling her wish to remain in the place where she grew up. The group’s aid extended to eye surgery for Mina, as well. She tells us her story.
Mirna recounts that on the day of the explosion, she had dashed with Chris to buy her son some milk. Suddenly, there was nothing but chaos. And Mina couldn’t find Chris. She did not even realise, she tells us, that one of her eyes was seriously injured; in the mêlée, one of Mirna’s eyeballs literally popped out. But Mirna could only think about finding Chris. In what must have seemed like an eternity, Mirna miraculously managed to locate Chris at a nearby hospital.
“It was the most joyous moment of my life,” says Mirna.
It is Easter Sunday on the day Mirna tells us this story. She shares home-baked cookies and she shows us her new room in the new house. There are butterflies on the wallpaper.
The next three days were spent visiting refugee camps across the country. Half of Lebanon’s population now comprises refugees. During the Nakba in Palestine in 1948, 110 000 Palestinians fled to neighbouring Lebanon. Today, Lebanon is home to half-a-million Palestinian refugees. It is also home to one-and-a-half-million Syrian refugees.
At Akkar refugee camp, we meet Basma and her five children, all living in a tiny tent-like structure in the camp. Three of Basma’s children are physically challenged; this is the reason her husband left the family, Basma tells us. Now the family’s sole breadwinner, Basma works in a nearby field. Five-year old Azam, follows me around as we visit other families and he helps to hand out meal boxes. Then, I feel Asam tug on my pants and I stop. Kneeling down to face this small boy, I ask our translator to please help me to understand what he is saying.
“He is asking, ‘Will you really help us’?” she says.
Nearby, we meet Ahmed’s family. Ahmed is 16, one of eight children in his family. Things are very difficult for Ahmed and his family. A while back, Ahmed burned his hand while heating water on the gas stove. His mum borrowed money from her employer to pay for medical care, but was unable to make the payments on her loan. Ahmed’s mother was fired and her refugee identity card was taken away. She will never be able to find work now.
Inside the Palestinian camp in Saida, Lebanon’s third largest city, we visit the home of a grandmother who takes care of her two daughters, both of whom have cerebral palsy. Her fear, the grandmother tells us, is that she will die before the girls.
“Who will look after them and change their diapers?” she asks.
The grandmother’s older son died in prison. He tried crossing the Turkish border for greener pastures, hoping to leave behind the restrictions and confinements of living in a refugee camp. His mother now takes care of his family too.
The tent-speckled Bekaa Valley in the north is home to 40 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Here, improvised shelters, often covered with plastic tarps, are pitched between fields and bushes. At Abrar refugee camp, we meet a family who walked from Syria — through the night — to make a home in Lebanon eight years ago. Seventeen-year-old Abdulla and his mother were both injured in the Syrian war, and now, Abdulla has only limited use of his right hand. He has quit school, saying he was frustrated at being too slow in the classroom. He wants to help people, he says, and will help us distribute the food parcels.
At Basma camp, a widow and her five children sit in a cold tent without access to heat. A thin rug that separates the gravel from a flattened and worn mattress is never completely dry. Muneera Khattab is in iddah (mourning), having recently lost her husband. She tells us about the family’s attempts to get him treatment. And, then, how he died of kidney failure just before sunrise and the dawn prayer, asking for her forgiveness for leaving her with five children to take care of. Yasmin, her only daughter, says her father died because he could not get medical help, and so she must be a doctor in his honour.
We spend the night in a camp in Bekaa, each of us reflecting on the previous few days, our bodies close to the ground, close to the mountains. I think about Diaana’s courage, Dima’s selflessness as she volunteers to help others affected by the blast, Mirna’s bravery and her patience when Chris refused for two months to go to her, because all the young child could see was her blood stained image. The resilience of women like Basma from Akkar who take care of their children, carrying the hurt of being abandoned.
In my head, I hear Yamaan, the 10- year-old whose voice brings comfort to his community through the harshest winters and darkest nights.
I pray that 13-year-old Fathima Zahra fulfils her dream of becoming a human rights lawyer, and that 16-year-old Fatima makes award-winning photography depicting the life of refugees.
As dawn breaks on one of our last days in Lebanon, we are met by a group of women from a camp. They have prepared breakfast for us. Fresh bread, hummus, za’atar, cucumbers, tiny aubergines stuffed with walnuts and chilli, and little cups of tea.
“We are honoured to have you here,” they say.
I step outside the tent to video call my son on this 26th birthday, and a group of children join me to for the birthday wishes. Later, I meet Isra, the 8- year-old girl in a red dress, who shares my daughter’s name. She stays close to me, and when it’s time to leave, Isra sobs.
“She wants to come with you,” her mother laughs, holding her two-year old son. The little boy is asthmatic and refuses to leave his mother’s arms. Isra and I hold hands and, together, walk towards the camp’s entrance on this final leg of our journey. Just before we reach the entrance, Isra stops, and says, “Bye bye. I love you.” It is a small moment. It won’t make the evening news or the pages of CNN’s website. For me, however, it is the ultimate connection, and I know I have been touched, and changed, forever.
These are some of my stories of a people in need, people who have no security, no food, no proper homes. Their faith is unwavering. They remain brave, strong and resilient, daring to dream, and daring to hope.
By the next sunset, I will be home in South Africa. The stories I have heard, the people I have met, will be in my heart.
* Hasina Kathrada is a freelance journalist and media and communications consultant. She joined the AMA women’s delegation to Lebanon as a volunteer.