Lebanon’s deadly explosion in August was the latest crisis to hit the country’s people.
Gassia Fahed will never forget the day.
It was just after 6 p.m. on 4 August. She and her nearly 2-year-old daughter Heaven were alone in their apartment, about five miles from the port of Beirut. Her husband, Issac, was not at home. Mrs. Fahed heard the explosion and went to the balcony to see what was happening.
“I saw this huge mushroom cloud in the sky,” she recalls. While rushing inside to get her phone to call her husband, the second explosion erupted. Glass from the windows shattered all around, falling on her daughter, who was sitting on the couch.
“Jesus protected her, truly. There was not even one scratch on her,” Mrs. Fahed exclaims, her eyes still wide with amazement.
It was a moment now etched in her memory — and in Lebanon’s history. The explosion was one of the largest non-nuclear blasts ever recorded, with buildings damaged more than 12 miles away. The blast is blamed on 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate stored for years in a warehouse.
As of 30 August, the disaster had killed 190 people, injured more than 6,500 people and left more than 300,000 people homeless. In addition to thousands of damaged homes, 159 schools were damaged, several churches, six hospitals and 20 health clinics. More than 70,000 workers are estimated to have lost their jobs as a result of the catastrophe.
For Lebanon, it is one more painful wound in the country’s long history. But for Mrs. Fahed, and many others in the country, the explosion was another reminder of the fragility of life.
It is a life that has become progressively harder for Lebanon’s struggling lower and middle classes, with many families, including Mrs. Fahed’s, now in need of help. Her family’s story offers one glimpse into the problems so many in the country have been facing, problems that began long before the disaster in early August.
As with so many in Lebanon today, hers is a story of unexpected setbacks and hardships — but also of tenacity and faith.
Early in their relationship, before they were married, Issac and Gassia Fahed began a tradition: choosing not to exchange gifts at Christmas.
“Instead, we decided that we will make others happy — needy people,” Mrs. Fahed explains.
They approached the Howard Karagheusian Commemorative Corporation, a non-profit community and health center in Beirut’s predominantly Armenian neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud, asking to be provided with the names of two or three families with children, as well as those families’ specific needs. The reason they selected Karagheusian, Mrs. Fahed says, is because it is “one of the most trusted organizations in Lebanon. The management and staff, the group of people that work with Karagheusian are dedicated and committed. And I know that whatever they receive — every drop of water — they give to the needy.”
Issac dresses as Santa Claus, and the couple visit the families.
“We went and spent time with them and gave them gifts. Our target was to not only help them financially, but to bring them love and joy. We told them about Jesus, and that Christmas is the season for giving and how God sent his one and only son to the world,” Mrs. Fahed explains.
“We enjoyed it so much, we did it at Easter as well,” she adds.
“Now, instead of helping the needy, we are the needy,” she says, her eyes welling with tears. “I couldn’t have imagined that the roles would reverse like this.”
The economy has been faltering in Lebanon for the last several years, and the lack of job opportunities has caused many Lebanese, particularly university graduates, to leave the country.
The situation spiraled further downward by October 2019; that is when hundreds of thousands of Lebanese began to protest — Christian and Muslim alike — against the corruption, the economic mismanagement and the sectarian politics that have beleaguered this eastern Mediterranean country for decades.
The protests paralyzed Lebanon, with banks closed for two weeks, triggering an accelerated economic and financial crisis.
Banks then imposed capital control measures, such as curbing transfers of money abroad and setting limits on withdrawals. Even the wealthy are unable to access their funds from the bank. In a country accustomed to using two currencies — the U.S. dollar and the Lebanese pound — the Lebanese were shocked to find there was limited access to dollars, even from their own accounts. The Lebanese currency, which had remained pegged to the dollar at an unchanged rate since 1997, was losing value.
Unemployment skyrocketed. Many of those who still had jobs saw their salaries slashed by 40 to 50 percent in order to remain employed.
As the economy continued its downward slide, the coronavirus and its accompanying lockdown measures plunged still more people into poverty.
The Faheds both worked in the entertainment sector — Issac as a distribution and marketing manager for a chain of movie theaters and Gassia as a marketing manager for a company that distributes Hollywood movies to cinemas in Lebanon and the Middle East. With theaters closed during the pandemic lockdown, they both lost their respective jobs.
Mrs. Fahed’s father, a taxi driver in his 60’s, also saw his livelihood affected, first with the economic downturn following the mass protests. He stopped working during the lockdown, as he has chronic diseases that put him at high risk for health complications.
In Lebanon, there is no government-provided assistance or social services. There are no unemployment benefits, no food stamp programs and no stimulus payments. When adversity hits, there is no safety net on which to rely except assistance from the church, nongovernmental agencies and charities that step in to fill the void.
With the compounded financial difficulties, the couple and their daughter moved in with Mrs. Fahed’s parents, in her childhood home in Zalka, a suburb of Beirut, in order to share expenses.
Living together gives little Heaven the opportunity to form a special bond with her grandparents, but space is cramped in the small two-bedroom apartment.
Mrs. Fahed (née Keloukian), who has a graduate degree in business administration, is vibrant and outgoing, with a positive attitude. “I like being committed to something,” she says.
While attending university, the young woman discovered she loved swimming. That commitment led to her becoming a swimming champion; in October 2019, at 37, she represented Lebanon in an international competition in Cyprus and was awarded one medal for second place and two medals for third place.
Mrs. Fahed even shared her love of swimming as an “aqua babies” instructor on weekends. And with her accomplished English skills, she also worked part time at a language center.
“I am not a lazy person. I am a hard worker. All my hobbies I have turned into a business so that I can help to provide,” she says.
But her opportunities to work as a swimming instructor were wiped out when the hotel where she offered classes closed its pool — an effect of declining tourism following Lebanon’s massive protests. And with the pandemic, the language center, as with all educational institutions, had to shutter.
Still, Mrs. Fahed persisted and proposed to the center’s management that she teach English classes online, at a reduced hourly rate, in order to have some income.
As Lebanon teeters toward economic collapse, the value of the Lebanese currency has lost more than 80 percent of its value, dramatically impacting the country’s ability to import basic goods.
Prices have soared. According to data released by the Central Administration of Statistics, consumer goods’ prices have risen on average by 112 percent from July 2019 to July 2020 — with food and non-alcoholic beverage prices rising by an alarming 336 percent.
Now, a monthly salary of 1.5 million Lebanese pounds is worth $200, compared with $1,000 last year.
As with so many Lebanese who defined themselves as middle class, the Faheds are finding themselves on the edge of poverty, struggling to afford essentials.
To compensate, they have made adjustments to their diet, relying on vegetables, lentils and other grains. “We just eat the basics,” Mrs. Fahed says. Meat is now considered a luxury.
Even the Lebanese army announced in June its decision to remove meat from its soldiers’ diets as part of austerity measures.
An August report by the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia warned that more than 55 percent of Lebanon’s population is now trapped in poverty and struggling to meet their basic needs for bare necessities.
This figure is almost double the poverty rate recorded for the previous year, which stood at 28 percent. Statistics on extreme poverty have tripled between 2019 and 2020, from 8 percent to 23 percent.
For now, the income Mrs. Fahed earns from her language courses is able to provide food for the family, as the couple has tried to think of ways to reduce their expenses.
“I even insisted to do potty training early for my daughter so we don’t pay for diapers. It was very hard.”
With a second child on the way and without access to insurance for her pregnancy, Mrs. Fahed now is a beneficiary of the Karagheusian Socio-Medical Center, which is funded in part by Catholic Near East Welfare Association. Karagheusian has operated in Lebanon, Syria and Armenia for more than 95 years.
A team of 55 rotating physicians plus a staff of 50 serves 4,500-4,800 patients a month at the Bourj Hammoud clinic.
Mrs. Fahed’s monthly doctor visits, all the blood and diagnostic tests as well as the daily dose of four vitamins she needs for her pregnancy are offered at Karagheusian at no charge.
“They are amazing people. They have good hearts,” she says of the Karagheusian team. “They smile, they are so positive. I feel at home there. No one makes me feel that I’m needy. On the contrary, they welcome me; they welcome my husband and daughter. They are super friendly, and they follow up.”
“I have the peace of mind that, when it comes to my baby’s delivery, Karagheusian will take care of it.”
Little Heaven also benefits from regular visits with a pediatrician and routine vaccinations at Karagheusian, as will her future sibling.
Today, Mrs. Fahed notes the irony of their brush with danger. Amid the risks of COVID-19, she stresses, “We were super cautious” — all her family adhered to confinement measures, wearing masks and social distancing. The blast rattled in her a realization: “Even in my house, I am not safe. The hardest thing as a mother is that I can’t give safety to my daughter.”
The explosions of that early August evening are still causing aftershocks. The government is in turmoil. Neighborhoods were left in ruin. Hospitals were overwhelmed. Indeed, many of the institutions people have come to rely on have been severely damaged — including the clinic operated by the Karagheusian center.
“Some people, when they go through challenges or bad situations, they blame it on someone or a bigger power,” she says. “But because of my strong faith in the Lord, I never questioned what God was in doing all this. On the contrary, I’m grateful that I’m alive, my husband is alive, my daughter is alive and I’m having another baby.”
With each new crisis, Mrs. Fahed says, the Lebanese people repeat the same reassurances. “ ‘Things will get better. We have hope.’ But unfortunately, things get worse and worse. Where is the government to take up its responsibility for the people? We are at the end of our rope. We need a miracle in this country.
“Faith is the only thing we have now. Literally, the only thing,” she stresses. “That’s the reason I can still smile. How would we survive if not for the help of the church?”
As part of its continuing efforts amid Lebanon’s economic crisis, CNEWA — in coordination with its partners, including Caritas Lebanon — distributed food parcels, each totaling over 75 pounds, to nearly 6,000 families in areas affected by the disaster. The contents of the food parcels follow international standards in order to provide basic nutritional requirements for a month.
“The number of those slipping into poverty is increasing, day after day,” says Michel Constantin, CNEWA’s regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. “This is all driving the Christians into a state of despair, and fuels their desire to leave Lebanon,” he says, noting that an exodus of Christians from Lebanon has happened before — particularly during and after Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.
“We might have parishes without parishioners and churches empty,” he warns, noting that Lebanon’s churches administer a significant share of the social service institutions that teach, heal and care for all Lebanese — not just its Christians.
Gassia and Issac Fahed look forward to the birth of their second child, a girl. They are thinking of naming her Hope. Despite all the difficulties in their lives, Gassia says, “Hope will give us hope. She is a God-given gift to tell us that in every bad situation there is hope — hope to survive, hope to continue, hope to smile and hope to praise the Lord.”
By: Doreen Abi Raad