When the work is personal

by Eric Eyges
Fall 2020/Winter 2021

Like everyone in Lebanon, the staff and volunteer corps at the Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service (CCECS) remember with photographic-like clarity where they were August 4th just after 6 pm. Layla Khuri (ME ’21), a CCECS volunteer, was in the Chouf mountains. “We actually felt it from up there, a pressure wave, like a big gust of wind that rattled the garage and made our ears pop. I’m pretty green to this, but my mom knew right away because she lived through the war. We thought AUB had been targeted. Everyone, wherever they were, thought that they had been specifically targeted. We started hearing rumors of a war, which we believed. No one knew what would happen.”

CCECS Programs Manager Hala Fleihan (BA ’03) remembers not feeling well. “I had a bad headache, and my brother was here from Dubai with his wife. So I said I’ll just take the day off and go to my parents’ house in Achrafiyeh. My daughter and I were outside on the balcony around 5:45 to 5:50 pm. Then the doorbell rang and her curiosity led her back inside. We felt what seemed like an earthquake. Then the explosion happened, and this gust of wind came through. All I saw was the glass window falling on my dad as he was sleeping. I saw him pull the cover over himself. Then everything went blank.”

“I was in my house in the South, in Nabatiyeh,” says CCECS Project Coordinator Ali Nehme (BA ’17). “I was away from my phone when the blast happened. I thought the image I saw was fake, edited. It took me a minute to process. My house is actually is very close to the port. My friends and family, we were calling each other, everyone. I went to a nearby Red Cross to donate blood.”

Many CCECS staff and volunteers were directly affected by the blast. In fact, the CCECS office itself was damaged. “Fortunately, the office was empty at the time, in the evening, and with the lockdown, so no one was there,” says Nehme. When staff returned, after cleaning away the glass and debris, they quickly got to work transforming CCECS into a disaster response headquarters.

“We put out a call for volunteers on our website, social media, Facebook, Twitter,” says CCECS Director Rabih Shibli. “In an hour we had more than 1,000 registered volunteers.” CCECS staff purchased gloves, hand sanitizers, shovels, bags, facemasks, and cleaning equipment and distributed them among the volunteers. “We broke into teams,” says Nehme, and focused on those neighborhoods most profoundly affected by the blast: Karantina, Gemmayze, and Mar Mikhael. They setup up tents in these neighborhoods from where they could distribute equipment and plan their routes.

“We met a lady, Christiane. I remember her story. She’s a single woman in her late 30s, tall, dyed-blonde hair, living as a long-time renter in a heritage house in Mar Mikhael,” says Khuri. “She had no family close around her that seemed to be looking out for her and was so overwhelmed. No one was helping her. She turned to me and started crying. Her house was open to the elements. It’s hard to think of what wasn’t damaged.”

Khuri and her team taped plastic sheets over the windows, collected doors that could be recovered, cleaned away broken chunks of wall. “It was hot and we were hammering away at rocks, so not easy work, and a part of me felt frustrated because, you know this is a short-term solution.” Some residents, long on the receiving end of temporary aid programs, expressed cynicism. Khuri remembered hearing one elderly woman say, “You’re just going to leave like the rest of them.”

“Many elderly people were standing around, in a daze, bandaged, lots of scratches and wounds,” says Nehme. “A lot of them just wanted to talk. I remember one person’s voice full of gratitude and sadness saying, ‘Al hamdulliah ma sarlna shi bas ino el bait rah.’ [“Thank God nothing happened to us, but the house is gone.”]

Volunteers with engineering and architectural expertise did quick damage assessments and a couple of houses were chosen, based on available funding, for rehabilitation. “The first was inhabited by a low-income family,” says Nehme. “And the second belongs to an old, disabled man whose house was significantly damaged.”

In total, CCECS has mobilized 782 volunteers; assessed, cleaned, and sealed 381 homes; assisted 1,524 residents; and is in the process of rehabilitating two homes. “The solidarity between people was pretty remarkable,” says Nehme.

“I’ve never seen the community come together to heal itself in the way that it did after the blast. We always have high levels of commitment, but this has been unprecedented. I think it’s because many of us, the volunteers, have been working in houses, in areas where we’ve lived, our own communities. We can relate to the pain of the people as we ourselves feel it.