‘I can’t sleep, I can’t even cry’: NGO worker on rebuilding Beirut after blast

Staff at NGO Care distributing aid at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, August 8, 2020.
Staff at NGO Care distributing aid at Saint Joseph University in Beirut, August 8, 2020. © Care

NGOs are working tirelessly to rebuild Beirut after last week’s devastating explosion, with French President Emmanuel Macron urging donors to act quickly at an impromptu UN virtual conference on Sunday. FRANCE 24 spoke to Patricia Khoder, a Beirut native working for the NGO Care, about the challenge of delivering effective aid in this shattered city.


Less than a week after one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history – which left more than 150 dead and around 6,000 injured – the emergency services are still trying to find survivors. NGO staff and volunteers are hard at work, amid an influx of international aid to the Lebanese capital. Khoder took time out of her busy schedule to tell FRANCE 24 about the situation on the ground.

What was your personal experience of the explosion on Tuesday?

I was in the Care offices – in the business district in central Beirut – when it all happened. We heard two big explosions, and we actually thought there was some sort of attack on our building. Then we went outside and saw this huge mushroom cloud in the sky. I immediately went down to the port and I could see that the districts of Gemmayzé, Achrafiyé, Dora and Mar Mikhael had been blown away – that there was nothing really left there. I put the news on straight away, and I soon realised that Beirut was gone, that my city had been destroyed. I grew up in those neighbourhoods. All of my youth was there.

I’m still in shock. I’m so numb I can’t really feel anything. I’ve only slept 12 hours in total since the blast. I can’t sleep, I can’t even cry; I still haven’t really processed what happened. Every day I’ve found out that someone I knew – of whom I was fond – has died, or that some beloved part of the city has been wiped off the map. It will take a lot of time before I can come to terms with all the destruction and start to mourn.

My work with Care has helped me cope. I’ve been totally focused on my mission since Tuesday. Our task of raising funds and delivering food for Beirut is what matters most to me now.

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What work have you been doing for the NGO since the blast?

Usually I work as a communications manager, but I have been in the field for two days distributing food for the worst-affected neighbourhoods. These areas are being gentrified, but a lot of poor people still live there, and they have nothing, with nowhere else to go.

We have started distributing food parcels containing rice, flour, pasta and tinned food that you can just eat straight away – seeing as many people in Beirut don’t have a kitchen or even a home any more. So we’ve started with food, but there are plenty of other things we hope to distribute. There are so many things Lebanon needs straight away: medicine (two hospitals were blown up), clothes, beds etc.

We also lack some essential building materials for reconstruction. There is a glass shortage because all the windows in Beirut have been shattered and there isn’t enough glass in the country to meet the demand. In the meantime, people are putting up cardboard boxes and plexiglass – while others don’t even have the means to do that, and are sleeping in their homes without roofs or windows, staying there so looters don’t rob them of what little they have left.

And there are many people who no longer have a home at all. There are 300,000 people living on the streets. But in two months, the first rains will fall, and it will be freezing cold. We will have to find solutions for those people.

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How do you see the future unfolding?

I don’t think about the future. Like my city, I have no tomorrow. There’s something about trauma like this which makes it impossible for you to project yourself forward in time. But the Lebanese are strong. I saw that resilience the day after the explosion, when people were out clearing the streets, clearing the debris. It is very difficult to break the will of the Lebanese.

This doesn’t make our daily lives any easier. I lived through the civil war in Beirut but I never saw anything on this scale. But what I see around me makes me proud: the solidarity that’s arisen from the desire to clean up the mess, rebuild and move forward. I am proud of my people; proud to be Lebanese.

We’ve obviously been heartened by all the messages of support from across the world. We need all that hope and the courage that goes with it; we have been living without hope for a long while. It is the international community that will give it back to us. That’s why it’s necessary to give money to NGOs and Lebanese charities to help the country recover.

This article was translated from the original in French.


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