Hassan is surrounded by rubble that once made up his life. The flat he had renovated himself was destroyed by the massive explosion that rocked Beirut on August 4. It can’t be rebuilt. His car is a write-off.
This is the third time in the past decade that Hassan has lost his home. First, he fled from the civil war in Syria in 2014. He was then chased out of his mother’s village in the south of Lebanon because of his Syrian origins. Finally, in 2015 he started rebuilding again, this time in Beirut. But now everything is gone.
The Beirut blast, in which a vast amount of ammonium nitrate stored at the city’s port was detonated by a fire leaving nearly 200 dead and 4,000 injured, came at a particularly difficult time for Lebanon, which is suffering its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
The breakdown in the country’s banking system and skyrocketing inflation pushed tens of thousands of people into poverty, and triggered large anti-government protests near the end of 2019. The coronavirus curbed the demonstrations but accelerated economic problems.
‘I adore this place. I built everything with my hands,’ Hassan told me when I visited him last year. He was working at a successful company, and had been involved in the design of ‘the fist of the revolution’, a cut-out image which towered over Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square and became a symbol of the protests. Now, any hope the protesters may have held is gone, and Hassan just wants to leave.
‘I’m really done ... Every time I work and build up my home, save up for a car, I go back to zero.’
Hassan is facing the same questions those living in Lebanon are increasingly asking themselves: how many times can a person find the energy to start anew?
More than 300,000 people were left homeless by the blast which devastated a wide area of the city. It was to prove a breaking point that forced many to leave the country. Information International, an independent Beirut-based research consultancy firm, estimates that the number leaving Lebanon since the blast has increased by 36 per cent. Google searches from within Lebanon for the word ‘immigration’ hit a five-year peak in recent weeks.
‘We are already seeing a mass exodus,’ says Jawad Adra, founder of Information International.
The exodus had started long before the blast, however. Lebanon’s diaspora is estimated to be more than double the size of its domestic population of nearly seven million, which makes going abroad easier for many Lebanese. This fact is reflected in my personal circle of friends: of all those I met while studying in Beirut, only three remain in Lebanon, and two of those plan to leave.
Gabrielle is one friend who has left. She is now studying in London but was in Lebanon when the explosion happened and volunteered to help clear the streets and deliver food to families in need. In her eyes, the blast was a last straw.
‘People lost hope because there are people in power that refuse to step down,’ she says. Many see the blast as the result of years of corruption and mismanagement. ‘Everyone wants to leave... nobody wants to deal with the situation here,’ she adds.
But leaving is only easy for those with dual nationality or a lot of money. The ability to leave is a privilege, one Hassan cannot expect. He will face obstacles due to his Syrian passport and lack of finances. There are also administrative barriers.
Gabrielle, in her turn, suffers ‘survivor’s guilt’, the feeling that she can leave while others are trapped with no financial support from anyone, including the government. ‘Everyone who leaves does so with a lot of guilt. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t.’
Hanna's documentary on the Beirut Explosion and its aftermath is now available online.