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After the explosion: Lebanese students at U of T reflect on the Beirut blast

Reviewing causes, effects on the university community
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HANNAH FLEISCH/THE VARSITY
HANNAH FLEISCH/THE VARSITY

On August 4, disaster struck at the port of Beirut in Lebanon. Around 6:00 pm, the roof of a warehouse set on fire. Soon after, a major mushroom cloud erupted, and the blastwave ripped through the city. There was smoke, fire, toppling buildings, shattering windows, cars bursting into flames, and then — silence. 

Amidst a pandemic that has racked up a death toll of millions, Beirut suffered a mammoth explosion, ricocheting the country’s already fragile and fragmented socioeconomic landscape into complete and utter disaster.

In mere seconds, the city of Beirut had been reduced to ruins, reminiscent of an image you would see in a Hollywood rendering of World War II.

Then came the confusion, minutes stretching into hours of calling every family member, friend, and acquaintance you could think of, making sure that they were alive, that you were alive, unable to comprehend that the world around you lay in complete destruction. 

For Lebanese students at U of T, the urgency of reaching family and friends back home, the experience of watching their city crumble on Twitter and WhatsApp, and the feeling of powerlessness from being so far away was nothing short of a living nightmare.

“It was so hard… seeing my entire city get destroyed [on] social media,” said Zein Idris, a third-year student studying biology and psychology, on her experience hearing about the blast while she was living in Toronto. 

“For two weeks after the explosion I was on my phone for too many hours of the day. I just needed to know what was going on and stay updated, so it was emotionally draining.” 

Naya Sakr, a third-year student at the Rotman School of Management, echoed Idris’ sentiments. 

“All of my family, my best friends, everyone lives in Lebanon,” Sakr said. “So every time I hear bad news, all I can think about is the people I love and how badly they’re being affected. Their whole lives are being ruined, and there’s nothing they can do about it.” 

She acknowledged that being in Toronto afforded her a privilege that many of her hometown friends did not have. “I consider myself one of the luckiest people because I have a second nationality — my Canadian nationality — so I could leave Lebanon to study abroad, which is a luxury a lot of my friends don’t have,” Sakr said. 

“And that’s a problem within itself, the fact that you have to leave your home country to get an education and have a good future.”

For those back home, the Beirut explosion was more than a tragedy. It was also the climax of a broken Lebanese socio-political system, one that has been percolating for years. 

A breaking point for Lebanon

The full scale of the damage incurred by the blast was difficult to decipher for days — even weeks — following the blast. Thousands were injured, and at least dozens were nowhere to be found. Windows were shattered, buildings demolished, electricity cut out completely. Hospitals were so damaged that doctors and nurses were forced to treat casualties in the streets with nothing but the flashlights of their cellphones. 

The blast also had large impacts on the city’s infrastructure. Lebanese currency depreciated enormously, losing over 70 per cent of its value. The destruction of the port incurred at least $3.1 billion of damage to infrastructure. 

Later came the revelation that the explosion was not, in fact, a foreign attack, but rather the result of government negligence. A reservoir of ammonium nitrate, a highly volatile explosive chemical, had been sitting at the Beirut port for almost six years. 

The government did not adequately regulate or dispose of the dangerously high quantities of the chemical. It took an explosion for them to finally listen. 

But Lebanon’s problems did not begin with the blast. To trace back the instability that ensnared the country, keeping it on the verge of complete disaster is no easy feat. Some could say that turmoil in Lebanon began to capture international attention in October 2019. 

Paul Kingston, a professor at the Department of Political Science and the Centre for Critical Development Studies, has conducted extensive research in the dynamics of state building and political economy in Lebanon after its civil war from 1975–1990. He expressed that the explosion in Beirut was the culmination of socioeconomic and political turmoil that had been brewing for years, if not decades. 

He described the elite of Lebanon as a mixed bag of powerful communities, families, and elite economic forces. Those with economic force also tend to be those in elite families. 

“Most companies [in Lebanon] are private, family-owned businesses, so the capital flows are all coming through diaspora… or they come in through oil revenues or remittances… But they often flow through the banking system into families,” said Kingston. “It’s very difficult for the government to have taxation power over this revenue.” 

“All of them means all of them.” This was the cry that rallied civilians across the country beginning in October 2019, uniting a population prolific for being deeply divided along socioeconomic, sectarian, and partisan lines. These anti-government protests called for the overhaul of a corrupt political regime, with some wanting the entire political structure to be overhauled. 

Many events precipitated these calls, such as the government’s inability to reach consensus for intervals long enough to resolve severe nationwide water and electricity shortages, a waste-management crisis, and a plummeting economy. 

Unfortunately, the protests in 2019 were ineffective in toppling political elitism, instead serving to highlight the extremity of class inequality and corruption that upholds the Lebanese state. This system may strike outsiders as complex and difficult to navigate — because it is. 

“You can bet your bottom dollar that as Lebanon descends precipitously over this last year that economic elites and families have found a very effective way of protecting their money, so they’re not [the ones] suffering,” Kingston said. “It’s the middle class, which is descending into the ranks of the lower class; and the lower classes, which are descending into the ranks of [extreme poverty], who are risking their lives now to exit on shady arrangements on boats to escape the country.”

“There have been some horrendous reports of that happening over the last month or so, which tells you just anecdotally that the situation for the vast majority of the population is truly hopeless.”

Beirut and beyond: the aftermath in the Lebanese U of T community

Indeed, although the 2019 protests before the Beirut explosion were largely peaceful, inspiring members of the Lebanese diaspora to protest abroad in solidarity, the government attempted to stifle dissenters through excessive uses of force by the army and security forces. 

Since mid-October 2019, Lebanese banks have implemented informal capital controls, such as limits set to prevent civilians from accessing or withdrawing funds up to a certain extent. The Lebanese government claimed that these economic measures would prevent people from panicking and withdrawing a lot of money from the banks given the political instability. 

After August 4, in the wake of the economic devastation caused by the blast, capital controls were further exacerbated, leading to widespread consequences for Lebanese citizens both inside and outside the country. 

“Another huge problem was the capital control that the banks are putting on the bank transfers; banks aren’t transferring any money to students abroad,” Idris said. “They’ve been making small exceptions, but even that is going to stop very soon.” 

Idris described the obstacles they faced in accessing emergency financial aid when it came to university tuition, a process that they found complex and difficult to navigate. 

“The university is doing a COVID-19 emergency grant, which I applied for, and in my application, I talked about the situation going on back home,” Idris said. “I [also] tried applying for [the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP)] because the capital controls are making it really difficult to access tuition fees… [OSAP] responded saying I wasn’t eligible because I [didn’t] have residency in Ontario before starting university. I followed up [but received no response].”    

It is difficult to surmise the true extent of accessibility barriers to resources for international students at U of T who are facing political and economic turmoil back home. Despite U of T’s efforts to extend financial relief, the past year has been one of pandemic-induced shutdowns, economic uncertainty, and, for many Lebanese students, complete displacement. 

Many financial aid packages exclude students who do not fulfill eligibility requirements based on residency or citizenship. Other packages are not sufficient enough to overcome the extreme capital controls in Lebanon, which makes it almost impossible for some students to finance tuition and living costs. 

“The protests made it feel like something was happening, something real, that could lead to real change,” Idris said, reflecting back on the crisis. “From January to April, we saw the currency dip lower and lower, even before COVID-19 actually hit Lebanon, and when it eventually did, it just accelerated the currency crisis to basically a disaster. The explosion was… the cherry on top.”

“Looking back now… I would say the biggest [difference] is that we had so much hope, and now, it’s almost like we’re done; there’s nothing left.”

Along with financial insecurity, the crisis has inevitably wreaked havoc on all aspects of students’ lives, from academic performance, to mental health, to feelings of isolation and hopelessness. 

“Now, on top of everything that’s happening with COVID-19, there’s a huge political crisis, along with the explosion in Beirut, so really right now everything in Lebanon is completely shattered,” said Sakr. “There definitely is that part of my mind that’s always preoccupied, thinking about Lebanon, what’s happening, [and] if everything’s okay, so it takes away from my ability to focus on my life here.”

Sakr also noted the impact the explosion has had on their emotional well-being.

“When I do focus on my life here, I feel guilty,” Sakr said. “I feel guilty that I have these opportunities, and the people I love are living in a country where they have almost no hope at the moment.”

Echoing similar sentiments, Idris described the difficulty of conveying the reality of their experience. 

“One thing that really changed for me is that now, I know there’s no going back, you know?” Idris said. “There’s nothing to fall back on in Lebanon. It made my life here much more permanent, and I realized there’s no contingency plan.”

Idris wants people to be more aware of what’s happening in Lebanon. As other international events have taken place, major news outlets have not consistently continued reporting on the aftermath of the explosion. 

 “It’s hard for someone who isn’t living through it to understand,” Idris said.

International attention may be fickle, but the suffering does not end when the headlines cease. But even without global coverage of Lebanon, grassroots movements continue to draw upon hope, fueling Lebanon’s ability to continue moving forward once more. 

For Lebanese students in Toronto, there is also hope to be found and help to be sought. “One of my friends in Lebanon applied for a transfer after the explosion,” Sakr said. “It was after the deadline had passed, but he sent an email to the administration explaining the situation… They eventually did accept his transfer, and now he’s able to attend university remotely from Lebanon until he gets his Canadian visa.”

Many students living abroad in Canada may feel alienated and alone in their struggle, without a true home to which they can return, and carrying the burden of being thousands of kilometres away. Regardless, there is power in the collective voice of the Lebanese community, and there is the potential for help to be found. 

As for the international community, both within U of T and throughout Toronto, it is possible to extend that help. Donations to reputable organizations such as the Lebanese Red Cross, CARE Canada, and Plan International Canada can provide resources to those directly affected by the crisis on the ground in Lebanon. 

Students in the Lebanese community may feel that it is impossible to move forward or to envision their future at a time when their home country is undergoing such a disaster. However, in the face of such adversity, the most significant role U of T and other educational institutions can play is to extend educational opportunities and emotional, mental health, or financial support to students experiencing challenging circumstances. 

Sakr said, “The most important thing is that [U of T has] given students in Lebanon a chance to come here and pursue a better future, which I think is really incredible.”