Hor­rific blasts stun Le­banese com­mu­nity

Ottawa Citizen - - City - BLAIR CRAW­FORD

Ot­tawa is nearly 9,000 kilo­me­tres from Beirut, but the shock wave from Tues­day’s mas­sive ex­plo­sions was felt here like a punch to the gut.

Fa­ther Nek­tar­ios Na­j­jar had planned a mass at St. Elias An­ti­ochian Ortho­dox Cathe­dral on Tues­day evening for med­i­cal work­ers and those af­fected by the COVID -19 pan­demic, but said his prayers to the thou­sands of in­jured and the un­known num­ber of dead from the dev­as­tat­ing blasts in Beirut’s port.

“Beirut is not a big city in size, but it’s loaded with peo­ple,” Na­j­jar said. “It’s the place where ev­ery­one goes to find work or to study. I’ve heard that there was dam­age up to 15 miles (24 kilo­me­tres) away. That means that two-thirds of all the peo­ple in the coun­try have been af­fected.”

If a sim­i­lar ex­plo­sion were to hap­pen on Par­lia­ment Hill, there would be dam­age as far west as the Cana­dian Tire Centre, east to Cum­ber­land and south to Greely.

Na­j­jar’s par­ents and sib­lings live just four kilo­me­tres from the blast site. They weren’t in­jured, but the ex­plo­sion shat­tered the glass of the store they op­er­ate.

“I know peo­ple in Beirut who have died,” Na­j­jar said. “But it’s the num­ber of peo­ple who say they’re look­ing for some­one who’s miss­ing. They can’t find them.”

“There are no words to de­scribe what’s hap­pen­ing now,” said Ah­mad Ara­jii, pres­i­dent of the Le­banese Club of Ot­tawa. “It’s hor­rific. I’ve never seen Le­banon like this in my life. It’s worse than it was dur­ing the civil war.”

Hos­pi­tals in Beirut have been over­whelmed with the in­jured, many of them cut by fly­ing glass. The death toll stood at more than 70 Tues­day evening, but it seemed in­evitable that it would rise as res­cuers reached more ar­eas of the ru­ined city. At least 4,000 peo­ple were in­jured, according to fig­ures avail­able Tues­day night.

Tues­day morning, Ara­jii saw videos of the ex­plo­sion online. Then his phone be­gan to ring.

“Most of my fam­ily is in Le­banon,” he said. “Some of them were af­fected di­rectly, their win­dows were shat­tered and their kids hos­pi­tal­ized. The hos­pi­tals aren’t even able to take in the in­sane amount of wounded peo­ple. It’s hor­ri­ble.”

Many mem­bers of Ara­jii’s fam­ily in the Bekaa Val­ley, about 50 kilo­me­tres east of Beirut, heard and felt the con­cus­sion from the blast, he said. He has friends in Cyprus, more than 200 kilo­me­tres to the west in the Mediter­ranean Sea, who saw and heard the ex­plo­sion.

Sev­eral mem­bers of the Le­banese Club of Ot­tawa’s board of di­rec­tors are in Le­banon on va­ca­tion, but all are OK, he said.

“There’s an ur­gent need for blood,” he said. “We’re try­ing to tell ev­ery­one we know to tell ev­ery­one they know to go give blood.”

Com­pound­ing Le­banon’s mis­ery is the on­go­ing COVID -19 pan­demic and a col­laps­ing econ­omy that has pushed many Le­banese into poverty and frozen the coun­try’s bank­ing sys­tem.

Cana­di­ans can’t give their blood, but the Le­banese club quickly set up a GoFundMe cam­paign that will try to raise $20,000 to help those af­fected by the tragedy.

And while the con­gre­gants of St. Elias of­fered their prayers, Na­j­jar also said money is ur­gently needed. He sug­gested peo­ple do­nate to the Le­banese Red Cross, which is work­ing on the ground in the city, help­ing sur­vivors and or­ga­niz­ing blood do­na­tions.

“It’s the fastest and eas­i­est thing to do,” he said.

And while the hu­man tragedy is enor­mous, Na­j­jar said the blast will leave dev­as­tat­ing phys­i­cal scars on the coun­try too.

“Beirut is a very an­cient and a very beau­ti­ful city. And from the pic­tures that I’m seeing to­day, a lot of those build­ings, which are of his­toric and arche­o­log­i­cal value, have been de­stroyed . ... Add that to the fact that they are al­ready hav­ing an eco­nomic cri­sis and in the midst of a pan­demic, I think it’s a recipe for one of the most chal­leng­ing times in his­tory for the coun­try.” bcraw­ford@postmedia.com

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