As bankrupt Lebanon tries to clean up, the trauma remains for many

Nearly three weeks after a blast tore through Beirut, not all are able to repair their homes and even when they do, the scars of August 4 remain

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Haisam was sitting with his mother Amar in their Beirut flat when they heard a low sound in the distance.

The five-year-old looked up briefly. Amar, 20, hesitated, but resumed work in her kitchen. Moments after a second and much bigger explosion in the port of the Lebanese capital, both were thrown against the wall as windows smashed and furniture was tossed around by the blast. Their bodies were covered in blood, dust and pieces of glass. The air smelt of smoke.

Two weeks on, Haisam has barely slept, with any unfamiliar sound scaring him. Afraid to even leave his home, he only ventures out to a small clinic offering free healthcare services since the neighbourhood's main paediatric hospital lies in ruins.

The peadiatric unit at Qarantina's government hopsital lies in rubble.

“He talks about the explosion all the time, even asking if it will happen again. He’s afraid to leave the house and he cries constantly,” Amar, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo and mother of three who didn’t want to share her full name, said.

The family lives in Beirut’s Karantina, a working-class neighbourhood home to many lower-income families as well as refugees that was hard hit in the August 4 explosion that killed at least 180 and wounded over 6,000. But Amar has other worries too – with neither her nor her husband working and another lockdown introduced to stop the rapid the number of new cases of Covid-19, she isn’t even sure how they could afford to replace their broken windows and doors.

“We left Syria for our children,” says Amar, who was a teenager when they left and before that a child bride. “We wanted them to have a better future. Haisam was born in Lebanon, which we considered safe. We never imagined any event that could traumatise him.”

Haisam, 5, who was injured in the August 5 blast and has since faced trauma, is being treated in a small clinic.

Psychologists now say that thousands of children affected by the blast could be at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety.

“They witnessed a catastrophic event. They saw their homes being damaged or destroyed, their parents or relatives injured, crying and shocked. They saw dead bodies and people with severe wounds laying on the streets calling for help,” explains Elissa Al Hassrouny, child protection specialist at Plan International, an agency offering mental health services to children in Lebanon.

Karantina is a historical less well-off district of the city, explains Mona Fawaz, Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at the American University of Beirut. It lies a short distance from other nearby areas that were equally affected by the explosions that have been gentrified for at least a decade.

But exactly this combination of poverty and post-blast trauma has caused many people to feel anxious. “I still lie awake at night, wondering how life will go on now,” Amar admits.

Poverty has been on the rise in Lebanon, with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia last week estimating that more than 55 per cent of the population is now struggling for bare necessities; almost double the number struggling last year.

Extreme poverty has increased threefold to 23 per cent since 2019.

Lebanon is bankrupt.

The Lebanese Pound, officially kept at a steady around 1,507 pounds to the US-Dollar tanked after the beginning of last year’s October revolution. Black markets rates now price the dollar at 7,000 pounds, meaning that most Lebanese – paid in the local currency – are unable to afford anything imported and basic goods in shops coming in from outside Lebanon have skyrocketed. That includes those who need materials to fix their houses.

 

Rawan Hijazi, a founding member of aid group Shabi Massouliyati (Arabic for "My people; my responsibility") told The National that stories like Amar's have prompted the non-profit to set up listening booths in the areas destroyed by the blast.

Similar initiatives offering free mental health support have mushroomed across the city, with psychologists counselling people by the roadside or visiting homes.

“There is a lot of need. Some people want to talk, while others were too deep in shock to voice their feelings, unable to leave their houses even,” she said, explaining that many Lebanese were still hesitant to seek mental health assistance in the first place, trying to cope with their fears and anxieties alone.

It is not only the children, but an entire city that is reeling.

Urban designer and architect Antoine Atallah said that both the blast and the longer-term aftermath, which for many included uncertainty about whether their houses will be fixed or not, or whether they could even afford it, will continue to cause trauma and depression.

"If you want to lift people out of a catastrophe, you need to ensure them that they can keep their houses, that whatever landmarks they are used to will remain. Beirut's people need to find their places again; their houses they are attached to. Preserving the social and cultural areas in places like Karantina will help many people move forward," he told The National.

Jean Claude Srour, 48, stands in his damaged house.

Jean Claude Srour, 48, is trying exactly that. His house was heavily hit by the blast, but he was detemined to rebuild, hoping that it will ease some of the trauma his family was facing.

He described their once cosy home, a house of high ceilings and decorated floor tiles, as the family’s lifeline, a place his parents-in-law had lived in for decades, with his wife born in the exact room they had been sitting in when the blast occurred. All survived, but to Jean Claude, August 4 will remain a second chance at life.

“We were lucky. Many others in the area died; something we are still grappling with,” he said, standing next to his blown-out window, construction workers around him fixing the house. “We will be able to rest again at night once our house has been fixed, once we can live here again.”

Psychologist Petra Beiruti is speaking to a family affected by the blast.

Petra Beiruti, a psychologist who has been visiting families affected by the blast told The National that she has seen anxiety manifest in people of all ages.

“Entire neighbourhoods have suffered trauma, which is normal under the current circumstances. In the coming weeks and months, we will see for whom it might transcend into post-traumatic stress,” she said.

“Poverty adds another level to the already tough situation. People experienced an apocalypse and many don’t have the financial means to move past it. Lebanon’s people are broken; but we’ve seen one thing over the last weeks: There is a spirit to keep going, to keep moving forward, to keep rising.”

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