The cataclysmic explosion that shook Beirut to its foundations in early August, leaving 157 people dead, 5,000 injured, and 300,000 homeless, was the coup de grâce for a country that has been bleeding for years under crushing burdens.
The explosion seems like the denouement to the unfolding tragedy of Lebanon, a country where high unemployment, an economic meltdown, burdensome taxes, staggering inflation that left its currency virtually useless and COVID-19 were already taking their toll.
These problems pale beside the one that has pervaded life in Lebanon for decades. A corrupt, kleptocratic government that has no qualms about stealing taxpayers’ money.
That Lebanon is ruled by a corrupt government that has kept its stranglehold on power for decades is no secret.
The Canadian government immediately announced that it was providing $5 million to help meet the urgent needs of people affected by the crisis, with $1.5 million going immediately to trusted humanitarian partners on the ground, including the Lebanese Red Cross.
International Development Minister Karina Gould has pointedly stated that Canadian aid will be funnelled to “trusted” humanitarian organizations and not be directed to the Lebanese government.
Fortunately for Lebanon, there are several trustworthy and reputable humanitarian organizations – besides the Lebanese Red Cross – working diligently on the ground, providing desperately-needed assistance in the form of food and medical supplies to the grievously wounded. With years of experience on the ground, their workers have personal ties with the country and are moved by a genuine desire to walk in solidarity with those they serve.
The small Sweden-based non-governmental organization A Demand for Action (ADFA) has a stellar reputation for directing almost all of its funds to benefit those in need, while keeping administrative costs to the minimum. Staffed entirely by volunteers, it has had years of experience working in Beirut with refugees who fled violence and faith-based persecution in neighbouring countries such as Iraq and Syria.
Many of its supporters are Middle Eastern Christians with deep ties to Lebanon, which they see as a country – despite all its flaws – where they or their families found shelter and freedom of worship when they fled genocide in their homelands.
“The refugees we help are in a very bad situation,” Nuri Kino, the leader of the ADFA said in an interview shortly after the explosion. “Their homes in structurally fragile ghetto buildings have been destroyed.”
Kino said ADFA was able to switch gears quickly and expanded its service to anyone who was affected by the explosion, not only the refugees who have been under their care for years.
“Many people have asked if we work with the government (of Lebanon) and the answer is a very definite ‘No, we are independent,’” Kino emphasized.
Beirut’s Armenian community is an example of a group that survived the genocide of 1915 and rebuilt their lives in Lebanon.
Recently, all the Armenian Apostolic churches in Canada held a special requiem service in memory of those who lost their lives in the explosion. The diocese has established a Beirut Explosion Relief Fund.
“The donations will be directed to the families of innocent victims through the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin,” Armenian Primate Bishop Abgar Hovakimyan said in his appeal.
Marie-Claude Lalonde, Canadian director of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), told Convivium in an email exchange that the leading Catholic charity rushed a first emergency sum of $362,500 to help feed people who lost everything: “Their homes, their livelihood as well as loved ones, relatives and friends.”
“We are monitoring the situation carefully and are in regular contact with the bishops and patriarchs who will also receive and manage the allocated funds directly, as is the way ACN functions in all cases, and without intermediate intervention. We will definitely help again when needed. It is but a beginning phase of our help,” Lalonde said.
ACN, too, has had years of experience in providing relief in countries with multiple problems, including corruption, war, nepotism, and rampant poverty.
“We never associate with the local governments or transfer help through them, that way we are certain the money reaches directly those in need,” she said.
Catholic Near East Welfare Agency (CNEWA) is another well-known NGO that has been at the service of the churches and people of Lebanon and other countries for decades, providing relief to those who are suffering and those who have fallen through the cracks, especially those facing homelessness and in need of medical care and food.
“CNEWA Canada will leverage most of its resources to support the campaign – social media, website, advertisements and personal and appeals to its generous donor base,” Canadian director Carl Hétu said in a press release. “Funds raised will be directed to the CNEWA office in Beirut, which, in turn, will share with local churches that offer essential health and emergency services and pastoral outreach.”
The faith-based organizations that Convivium contacted stressed that while the lethal explosion affects all communities, one can’t overestimate the importance of sending aid to a country brought to its knees by catastrophe – but which nevertheless represents a ray of hope for religious pluralism in the Middle East.
“With all the major issues devastating Lebanon, this … horrific incident only deepens what many describe as an existential catastrophe not only for Lebanon as a nation, but for the existence of a culturally and religiously diverse Middle East,” said CNEWA president Msgr. Peter Vaccari. “CNEWA recalls the words of St. John Paul II, who reminded the world that Lebanon is not just a country, but a message.”
Susan Korah is an Ottawa-based journalist. A longer version of his article was originally published in Convivium, a publication of the think-tank Cardus.