‘Who else is go­ing to re­build this city?’

Des­per­ate to leave Beirut, young also the ones fix­ing it

Daily Press (Sunday) - - Nation & World - By Vi­vian Yee The New York Times

BEIRUT — The scooter en­gines snorted out, and Sara el-Sayed swung her­self down to the pave­ment out­side the third dam­aged build­ing she had vis­ited that af­ter­noon, two car­pen­ters in tow.

Up­stairs, a woman’s blown-apart doors needed fix­ing.

Cig­a­rettes and cell­phone in one hand, pen and pa­per in the other, el-Sayed jot­ted down di­men­sions as the car­pen­ters mea­sured empty door frames and shat­tered win­dows.

She has taken this up as her job now: vol­un­teer­ing to ham­mer together as much of the splin­tered city as she can be­fore leav­ing it — hope­fully for good.

Six days af­ter the ex­plo­sion that crushed much of Beirut, a Span­ish mas­ter’s de­gree pro­gram in in­te­rior de­sign no­ti­fied el-Sayed that she had been ac­cepted, a dream come true.

When she leaves, she will be done with all of this, she hopes: a gov­ern­ment whose in­com­pe­tence ap­pears to have led to the blast; a cor­rupt po­lit­i­cal sys­tem young Le­banese blame for abort­ing their fu­tures; a coun­try where the mid­dle class is sink­ing into poverty as the politi­cians slow-walk eco­nomic re­forms, and where the only way to sur­vive seems to be a sec­ond pass­port, a job or a grad­u­ate pro­gram some­where else.

Many Le­banese were al­ready look­ing for such es­cape hatches be­fore the Aug. 4 ex­plo­sion. An ex­o­dus now seems in­evitable.

But el-Sayed can­not think about leav­ing yet. “I’m not run­ning away,” said elSayed, 30, a Pales­tini­anLe­banese ar­chi­tect with a small cus­tom fur­ni­ture busi­ness who used to live in

Gem­mayzeh, one of the worst-hit neigh­bor­hoods. “I want to at least have Beirut on its feet be­fore I go.”

As Beirut reck­ons with the de­struc­tion, thou­sands of Le­banese in their teens, 20s and 30s — rather than gov­ern­ment per­son­nel — have shown up to put the most dam­aged neigh­bor­hoods back in or­der, shov­el­ing, sweep­ing, feed­ing, fix­ing.

Many of the vol­un­teers h ave b e e n p ro t e st i n g against the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem since last fall; if any­one be­lieves Le­banon can change, it is them.

Yet few say they want to stay to see whether it will. Since the ex­plo­sion, coun­tries like Canada have been hit by a wave of ap­pli­ca­tions from young Le­banese seek­ing to em­i­grate, of­fi­cials say.

“I used to call peo­ple sissies for leav­ing the coun­try, be­cause you’re afraid of do­ing the change and ev­ery­thing,” said Mo­hammed Ser­han, 30, a po­lit­i­cal or­ga­nizer and cleanup volun

— Sara el-Sayed, 30, an ar­chi­tect teer who protested for months.

But the ex­plo­sion had al­tered his cal­cu­lus.

“Yes­ter­day I woke up think­ing, ‘I can go to the air­port im­me­di­ately, tell them I’m not com­ing to work. Go to the air­port, fly to Turkey, see what hap­pens.’ ”

El-Sayed, who had just as­sessed Ser­han’s dam­aged doors and win­dows, jumped in.

“Re­ally, we’re fight­ing,” she said.

They would both keep protest­ing, they agreed.

“But I don’t have hope,” el-Sayed said. “I’ve al­ways wanted just to leave.”

Like young peo­ple across the Arab world, their gen­er­a­tion is well ed­u­cated yet un­der­em­ployed.

While some of their friends and cousins left for mas­ter’s de­grees and jobs in Dubai and the West, vol­un­teers like el-Sayed and Ser­han stayed be­cause they wanted to or had to, hop­ing to change their coun­try even as it skid­ded to­ward eco­nomic ruin.

“Peo­ple who are out­side love the coun­try but don’t want to come back in, and peo­ple who are in­side hate the coun­try but they don’t want to leave,” said Zein Freiha, 21, a col­lege stu­dent who went door to door af­ter the ex­plo­sion with a plas­tic broom.

For them, the cleanup is per­sonal.

Many of the vol­un­teers used to live, work or so­cial­ize in the half-de­mol­ished neigh­bor­hoods of Gem­mayzeh and Mar Mikhael, drawn to their cock­tails, clubs, cafes, gal­leries and stu­dios.

Their Beirut is now in ru­ins.

El-Sayed’s for­mer apart­ment was de­stroyed in the blast, along with friends’ homes, work­places and cars. Doors around east Beirut were ripped from their frames. When loot­ers slipped into the neigh­bor­hood, she be­gan seal­ing off apart­ments. Nearly three weeks af­ter the ex­plo­sion, she had raised enough money via GoFundMe to re­place about 90 doors.

One el­derly cou­ple had slept in their foyer with a heavy sew­ing ma­chine pushed up against their splin­tered front door, fear­ing thieves. Oth­ers who called her had been quoted hun­dreds of dol­lars to re­place their doors at a time when banks are ra­tioning ac­cess to dol­lars and the Le­banese cur­rency has lost 80% of its value.

Be­yond fix­ing apart­ments and clear­ing bro­ken glass and de­bris, the vol­un­teers have as­sessed dam­aged build­ings, searched for miss­ing pets, de­liv­ered hot meals and di­a­pers, and even com­piled what amounts to the in­ci­dent’s only cen­tral­ized data­base of miss­ing peo­ple. The gov­ern­ment has not re­leased any of­fi­cial data on the miss­ing.

While civil­ian vol­un­teers go to work, soldiers sit on street cor­ners, ri­fles dan­gling from their shoul­ders and cig­a­rettes from their lips. Only about two weeks af­ter the ex­plo­sion did gov­ern­ment per­son­nel be­gin dis­tribut­ing food boxes and as­sess­ing dam­ages, res­i­dents said.

A day af­ter the blast, Hus­sein Ka­zoun, 28, an or­ganic farmer, took over an aban­doned gas sta­tion in Geitawi and started hand­ing out veg­eta­bles. A week later, the sta­tion, which he chris­tened Na­tion Sta­tion, buzzed with about 200 young vol­un­teers.

“It’s not my job to do this,” said Josephine Abou Abdo, 29, an ar­chi­tect and de­signer-turned-vol­un­teer who was co­or­di­nat­ing food do­na­tions. “But if I don’t get up, peo­ple won’t get fed.”

Us­ing the data vol­un­teers col­lected from res­i­dents, Ka­zoun’s younger sis­ter was map­ping out the most un­der­served ar­eas.

Nearby sat 20 do­nated rolls of plas­tic, used to seal bro­ken win­dows, that a co­me­dian had shown up with a few days be­fore.

As he and the vol­un­teers have ex­panded Na­tion Sta­tion’s scope, Ka­zoun has also tried to per­suade peo­ple to stay.

“‘We need you in this coun­try,’ ” he said he was telling friends. “If it’s left to the old gen­er­a­tion, things will stay the same.”

Sarah Barakat, 21, an ar­chi­tec­ture stu­dent over­see­ing the veg­eta­bles, said that she, too, planned to leave Le­banon for grad­u­ate stud­ies.

“But I’m com­ing back as soon as I fin­ish my mas­ter’s,” she said. “Who else is go­ing to re­build this city?”

DIEGO IBARRA SANCHEZ/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Vol­un­teers help run Na­tion Sta­tion, a gas sta­tion turned into a cen­ter that helps vic­tims of the Aug. 4 blast in Beirut.

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