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Stateside Lebanese pitch in after Beirut explosion

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Marianne Khattar learned about the massive explosion at the Beirut port when her sister called in tears to tell her about it. “I was more than sad, I was sick,” said Khattar, a recent college graduate who grew up in Virginia but has many friends and family members living in the Middle Eastern country. “I had to leave work because I was getting so nauseous and angry.”

Horrifying videos of the Aug. 4 explosion in the Lebanese capital city show plumes of smoke cascading into the sky before an even bigger blast envelopes nearby buildings, sending showers of glass and debris into the streets. The U.N. Refugee Agency reported that as of Aug. 11 more than 200 people are dead or missing as a result of the explosion. Hundreds are injured and hundreds of thousands are homeless. Many government officials have resigned in the wake of the disaster that many Lebanese attribute to corruption.

“This was not a freak accident, this was government negligence,” said Khattar. “This is a tragedy on top of a year of tragedies.”

After hearing the news, Khattar and her family, who attend both St. Joseph Church in Herndon and Our Lady of Lebanon Church in Washington, began reaching out to loved ones in Beirut. “My mom called down the list of family making sure they were alive and not misplaced and emotionally OK,” she said. “You never want to have to go down your contact list of family and say, ‘Are you alive?’ If they don’t answer, the panic sets in.”

There were a ton of close calls, said Khattar. She and her family might have been nearby if they hadn’t postponed their trip due to the pandemic.  One relative who works at the port was off work that day. Another relative was injured and Khattar’s mother’s church was destroyed, but many people they know were not harmed. “You feel bad being like, ‘That was a close one,’ because for so many people,” it was more than close, she said.

Khattar called a friend in Lebanon who was physically OK but was emotionally shattered — seven of her friends had died. “What do you say to that? There really are no words,” she said.

Khattar was still reeling, watching video after video of what was going on in Beirut when a friend asked her to share information on social media about ways people in the United States could help. Khattar quickly agreed, but knew she had to do more. “We can’t donate blood, we can’t be there to clean up the streets and look for people, (but) we have to do what we can from America,” she said.

So Khattar put out a call asking friends to purchase medical supplies and dry goods. Then she drove around the area picking them up. Her mother, brother, friends and other volunteers helped her collect and sort the food in her garage, which is almost full. “It’s such a good problem to have,” she said.

The food will be sent to New Jersey, where even more goods from around the country will be loaded on a ship bound for Tripoli, Libya, as the port in Beirut is destroyed. From there, the dry goods will be divided into boxes with enough supplies in each to feed a family of four for a month. Planes will fly the medical supplies from New Jersey as those are needed more urgently, said Khattar.

She and her family have encouraged people to support on-the-ground charities too such as Jobs for Lebanon, Mission Joy and Arcenciel. “(These charities) want to find a way to actually get things straight to the people and avoid all of the government corruption and government taking things and selling them,” she said. The family also is asking for prayers for Lebanon.

At first, Khattar was deeply disturbed by the gravity of the tragedy and how unaffected most Americans were by something she felt so deeply. “This is not a normal thing in Lebanon. A lot of Americans that are not as familiar with the Middle East have a tendency to almost normalize tragedy (there),” she said.

But after she began collecting supplies, she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. “I had a lot of misplaced anger and a lot of disgust for the world until I started doing this,” she said. “Now, I think people’s generosity will help balance the scales and restore Beirut.” 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020