Syrians lose children, homes and jobs in Beirut blast

AFP , Tuesday 25 Aug 2020

Syrian refugees rest on makeshift beds placed outside their house, destroyed in the Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, Aug. 17, 2020 AP

Ahmad had saved his family from Syria's brutal war by bringing them to Lebanon, but then Beirut's massive blast ripped his wife and two of their daughters away forever.

Weeks later, looking at the rubble of his former home near the port, he recounted how the explosion in one horrific moment upended his life.

"I feel like I've lost my mind. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them everything around me had changed," said the man, aged in his forties.

"I lost everything in an instant. We were a family of six people, but now it's just me and my two daughters."

Ahmad, from the Syrian province of Idlib, had worked hard in Lebanon for years, holding various jobs to send money home.

Three years into Syria's war, as fighting intensified in 2014, he decided to bring his family to Lebanon.

Then the August 4 disaster struck, Lebanon's worst peace-time disaster.

After hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded at the Beirut port and sent shockwaves across the city, Ahmad rushed home to Beirut's Karantina neighbourhood.

He was first to find the body of his 22-year-old daughter Latifa, who had been thrown against what remained of a wall.

With the help of neighbours and civil defence workers, he also pulled from the rubble the bodies of his 13-year-old daughter Joud and 40-year-old wife Khalidiyeh.

They managed to save another daughter, Diana, 17, after she had been trapped for 11 hours under the debris, screaming as both her legs were severely injured.

Only 14-year-old Dima survived unscathed and now spends her days by Diana's hospital bedside.

- 'Somewhere safe' -
Ahmad says all he hopes for today is to leave.

"I wouldn't dream of returning to Syria while it's not safe," he said.

"I'm trying to find a way to travel abroad," he said. "I want to live somewhere safe with them."

The working class neighbourhood of Karantina was one of the most damaged by the blast that killed more than 181 people, wounded thousands and ravaged large parts of the city.

Twenty-year-old Syrian Uday Qattan and his extended family, most of whom have lived in Lebanon for years and worked at the port, also lost their home.

In what remained of it, walls have cracked or collapsed, ceilings caved in, and most furniture has been destroyed except for the odd television or mirror.

An adjacent shack shared by the bachelors in the family has been reduced to splintered wood.

After the explosion, which the family says they survived by a "miracle", the married men sent their wives to other parts of Lebanon to live with relatives.

Remaining family members now sleep in the courtyard in between the rubble, behind a washing line strung up with clothes.

"We no longer have any work or home," Qattan said. "We sit here all day with nothing to do."

They cannot return to Syria, where they lost their homes in Hama province in the war, and risk being detained over dodging military service.

- 'No food, no country' -
Qattan joined his relatives a year ago from Syria's Idlib, where a fragile ceasefire has barely stemmed a regime offensive on a rebel bastion.

But he and his family say the Beirut blast was like nothing they even witnessed during the war.

"In Syria, if we heard the sound of a war plane, we'd hide then stand back up after the strike, brush off the dust, and continue our lives," Qattan said.

"Here a single explosion has wrecked everything around us."

Syria's embassy has said 43 of its nationals were among those killed in the blast.

The United Nations says 13 refugees lost their lives, while 59 are missing. It is not clear how many were Syrian.

Syrians had long sought employment in Lebanon before the war started in 2011 and sent 1.5 million Syrians fleeing for shelter across the border.

In Karantina, other Syrians, both those long-established and newcomers, recounted their experiences the day of the blast.

With Syria's conflict, then the blast in already economically suffering Lebanon, "it's really been a double blow to the head," said one of them.

As they talked, an aid truck pulled up, and they rushed out to receive their portions: pasta, biscuits, a few canned goods and water.

Twenty-one-year-old Nasr said that Syrians had been denied emergency aid deliveries on some occasions, being told that the packages were only for Lebanese.

"We used to work just enough to eat and drink, and pay rent," he said. "Now there is no food, drink or money, and no country -- in Syria or in Lebanon."

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