The “disaster-stricken areas,” as the neighborhoods around the port were referred to, had become noisy hives of activity by day, and eerie ghost towns by night after the tradespeople went home. Security forces were stationed throughout to prevent the burglaries of empty, damaged properties, and for the first time in living memory, our neighborhoods had 24-hour electricity. No one knows why, and no one I know wants to tempt fate by asking.
I still needed to replace my doors. Given the difficulty of getting money out of the bank, I took a neighbor’s advice and called an NGO that had helped her, Beb w’ Shebbek, or “Door and Window.” The organization was established days after the explosion by two friends, Mariana Wehbe and Nancy Harfouche, whose own homes and offices had been damaged. They called it Door and Window because that’s what most people needed. “It wasn’t like, Oh my God, what happened to us? ” Wehbe told me of the decision to help. “It was more this instinct of What do we need to do?”
Wehbe, a logistics and supply-chain-management expert who owns a public-relations company, and Harfouche, a gallery owner, tapped into their network of friends and contacts in interior design and architecture to gather volunteers. Wehbe said she was fielding hundreds of messages from people offering to donate money to the relief effort. “It literally happened in an hour. I don’t know if there was a higher power saying You have the resources, you have the know-how, the street needs you—get your asses on the street and just run with it.” To date, Beb w’ Shebbek has replaced doors and windows in 585 homes, replicating exactly what was lost down to the color and type of border accent.
Citywide, no one really knows how much of the destruction remains unaddressed. The scale of the catastrophe is hard to convey. Take my own modest situation, multiply it by the number of damaged properties, then factor in the more specialized and expensive restoration work needed to fix fragile, centuries-old heritage homes, not to mention the larger-scale repairs to hospitals, schools, and businesses. On top of all this, superimpose the economic crisis, the loss of people’s savings, the mental agony of losing homes and loved ones, and the pampered arrogance of do-nothing leaders, and you’ll have an idea of what the Lebanese are dealing with. Then add the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the same local NGOs that crowdsourced donations for repairs following the explosion are now crowdsourcing donations for ventilators and oxygen tanks to help pandemic victims.
Read: America’s future might be Lebanon
Some tasks, such as disaster recovery, shouldn’t be citizen-driven, do-it-yourself projects. There is much that government can and should do. But Beirut’s brutal experiment in the absence of government means that, for many, confidence in the state’s ability and willingness to help and protect its people is about as brittle as my windows.
I haven’t fixed my cracked walls, and maybe I won’t. The cracks are ugly, but the walls won’t fall down. I don’t expect state compensation, but I am lucky and grateful. I didn’t lose anything that can’t be replaced. Too many people in Beirut did.