Lebanon – August 2 2021

Beirut explosion: Testimony of a social worker at SOS Children’s Villages Lebanon

I am Cherine Zaydan, a 23-year-old social worker and a recent graduate from the Lebanese University. Working in the Emergency Response Programme at SOS Children’s Villages Lebanon was my first professional experience following several internships in NGOs and community centers.

I found it easy to fulfill my role within my daily tasks as I consider my job a mission and, most importantly, it is based on "love". It is one of the reasons that I am able to do my job in a positive and patient manner. Contact with the families, providing them with support, guidance, and not only cash assistance, while helping them cope, find solutions, build resilience, and network with additional resources, such as referral to other NGOs when needed.

August 4, 2020, 6:08 p.m., Beirut witnessed a blast that shook the capital to its core. Beirut witnessed a blast that destroyed homes, killed more than 180 individuals, and left thousands injured. In the midst of the small and populated city, damage affected more than 40,000 buildings, and more than 200,000 housing units.

August 4th, 2020 was only one part of the nightmare. Since October 2019, the country has faced political instability and ongoing protests and road closures, a collapsing economy with local currency depreciation that has reached 90% of its purchasing power. We faced the additional burden of a global pandemic, which paralyzed the country across many sectors. The pandemic  imposed a heavy burden on the medical sector, adding on the challenges faced with dwindling supplies and lack of purchasing ability of medical supplies and medications.

Performing field work in an area that was destroyed by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, in a country where the government had little impact on implementing safety relief, safety measures, and renovation works, made it difficult for me and the team to visit homes that had not yet been fixed, especially as a large part of the area consisted of old buildings, with homes suffering structural damage and were not always safe for visits. With no official database of victims and contact numbers, reaching affected families, deciding which families to visit and which to assist was a second limitation, and needed community outreach and a customized database that would help us in our decision making. Lockdowns and full closures due to COVID- 19 outbreaks made it even harder for us to visit the families at home, to do follow-up online due to internet connectivity issues, or even to process the administrative work in offices and with the banks for monetary transfers, yet despite all challenges, the project still ran smoothly and families received the support systematically and on time.

Among the challenges faced, were also those that we faced on a personal level. In a country with a collapsing economy, basic needs and living conditions are becoming more and more difficult to attain for all of us. Exposure to families imposed a COVID-19 health risk for the team and me. There was always the fear of catching the virus and affecting our immediate families, especially as medications began running out and hospital beds were at full capacity. Like all Lebanese, we also faced struggles with the economic instability, financial struggles due to depreciation of local currency and inflation of food and basic expenses, and trying to meet our everyday needs of electricity, water, and stable internet. Filling cars with fuel to complete visits and field work would mean a one or two hour stop at a gas station at least twice a week, and in some cases, we would not be able to commute, as no fuel was available.

But perhaps the hardest struggle for all, yet at times the most rewarding, was dealing with families. Despite the drastic losses the families had faced- family members, homes, jobs, and all sense of stability and security- watching the families fight to regain their sense of normalcy, when there was no sense of normal anywhere, helped us as a team build our own resilience and coping mechanisms. Providing psychosocial support at all levels- to the parents, children, in groups- we were able to see minor but positive changes in how families cope, communicate, problem solve, and resolve conflicts. We not only provided financial support to these families, but hope, guidance, and a chance to have them focus on the mental and physical health of their households as their basic needs were taken care of with the assistance provided by the ERP. All in all, the work was challenging and obstacles were faced, yet the number of families reached, the comprehensive assistance being provided to meet their needs throughout these challenging times, and the difference this made in their lives, added a dimension of reward and personal satisfaction despite our personal and everyday struggles.  And this, for me, aligns with my mission of providing social work with motivation, dedication, and love.