Beirut explosion: Lebanese open their homes to strangers displaced by blast

An estimated 300,000 people have been made homeless but across Lebanon, people are rallying to help

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Within hours of the massive explosion that devastated neighbourhoods and killed more than 100 people across Beirut on Tuesday, people opened their doors to the hundreds of thousands made homeless by the blast.

Jad Haddad wasn’t in his Ashrafieh apartment when the shock waves ripped through Beirut’s streets. He was asleep 40 minutes away at his mother’s house in Jounieh.

“I got woken up by the blast; we thought it was an earthquake,” the 23-year-old medical student said.

Shaken, he and his brothers turned on the news and saw the scenes of devastation. Then they called neighbours and family in Beirut, who confirmed the carnage. Houses had been torn apart, shop fronts blown out and the streets were paved in shattered glass.

"So we opened our home because we genuinely believe we have a duty to our sisters and brothers in these sad sad times," he told The National.

His family was among the first to offer shelter to Beirutis whose houses were rendered unliveable within seconds of a massive chemical explosion at the city’s port. Officials have said it was caused by more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated by accident in a warehouse, after being confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014.

The scale of the damage was immediately apparent as people emerged, dazed and bloodied into the streets, heading for hospitals where overwhelmed emergency rooms struggled to treat more than 4,000 wounded overnight. Others packed what they could from their decimated homes and pulled suitcases over the debris.

Temporary shelters set up by the Lebanese Red Cross have the capacity to deal with about 1,000 of those affected, but according to Beirut City Governor, up to 300,000 have been displaced.

Across Lebanon, people have rallied to help. Thawramap, which usually pinpoints the locations of peaceful protests, set up an online map showing the spaces opening up in private homes, hotels and schools around the country.

By midnight, six hours after the explosion, more than 42 locations were offering rooms or beds to “thousands of people” unable to return home, the platform said.

“Please DM me if you or anyone you know needs shelter. My family home was not affected and is open. We can arrange for transport as well,” Joelle Eid wrote on Twitter.

Simon Khoury, a 35-year-old lecturer in digital analytics, was quick to offer up two bedrooms at his house near the city, posting messages via Facebook and Twitter as offers piled up under the hashtag #ourhomesareopen.

“Lebanese people may be severely politically polarised but luckily, when it comes down to supporting other people in need, they are unique in their motivation to help,” he said.

Mr Khoury had joined a work call on his balcony in the Dbayeh suburbs when everyone felt a strong shake. “Less than a minute later we felt the mega-explosion and froze for a second. I have a clear view of the Beirut port from my living room and in a minute I could see all of Beirut’s seafront engulfed in white smoke. It was a terrifying sight.”

Videos of a huge billow of pink smoke exploding into the sky give a sense of the enormous force of the blast, which was felt more than 150 miles away in Cyprus.

Rawad Taha watched the updates come in with mounting horror from his house in the US. Desperate to help, he started facilitating connections between people offering homes and those searching for a place to stay, finding accommodation for some 30 families displaced by the blast.

The sense of solidarity was immense, Mr Taha said, but this morning he woke up heavy with despair. Like many Lebanese, he wonders how his crisis-ridden country, already collapsing under a failed economy, corrupt political system, widespread protests and increasing cases of Covid-19, will survive this latest catastrophe.

“To be honest, I feel weak, I feel like we lost Beirut forever … for this reason I have booked the first flight to Beirut today to be on the ground with the people of my country.”