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Swiss aid helps a still struggling Beirut

Credit: Keystone/AP/Bilal Hussein

Swiss non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the ground are still working to support the people of Beirut two months on from the blast.

It’s been two months since an explosion destroyed swathes of Lebanon’s capital Beirut, leaving more than 220 people dead, 6,000 wounded, and over a quarter of a million without adequate shelter.

In Switzerland, there was an eagerness to help straight away — and that help is continuing. The damage had brought a city that was already crumbling under the pressures of an escalating economic crisis and the spread of Covid-19 to its knees.

“People were calling our office saying ‘it's horrible what happened in Lebanon, you have to do something, you have to raise money’,” says Tasha Rumley, humanitarian programme manager for Swiss Solidarity (Chaîne du Bonheur), the country’s main private donor for humanitarian aid, which works with 26 Swiss NGOs. “People were asking us to launch a fundraising campaign, which was the first time [this has happened] for me.”

Despite worries that the pandemic may make people less willing to donate to international crises, the response from the Swiss public was strong. Swiss Solidarity have so far raised around CHF 6.5m and donations continue to come in.

“I think that the level of sympathy for Lebanon was very high,” says Rumley. “Disasters in general...are always really shocking and people know that it can happen almost anywhere, and it's very unfair.”

Lebanon has been a hub of humanitarian action for many years due to rising numbers of refugees from neighbouring Syria and its own escalating economic and political crises. Swiss Solidarity already had five NGO partners operating in Beirut. That meant they could quickly distribute funding and get to work. In the days immediately following the blast, the focus was on distributing emergency shelter kits and basic necessities and offering psychological first aid.

“Often, mental health issues have been overlooked [in humanitarian crises], but I think the explosion was so strong and so shocking [that] very early in the first days organisations were saying we need to provide...psychological first aid,” explains Rumley.

Two months on, NGOs are still working day and night to provide essential services such as food and shelter. Mental health support also remains the key focus for many groups.

Medair was one of the groups on the ground that distributed hygiene and shelter kits in the worst affected areas right after the blast. They also provided psychological first aid to try to help prevent widespread Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions such as anxiety.

“People just needed room to talk to someone to express because it was really shocking,” explains Hiba Hajj Omar, Medair’s national communications manager working in Beirut and the Beqaa Valley. “I heard stories from people who were [pushed] out of their houses by the blast. People who were scratched by shattered glass all over their bodies. People who lost their loved ones. So it was painful, but it was helping people to have someone to listen to them.”

Still, the psychological trauma of the blast has had a lasting impact. Omar explains that many people in Beirut were already suffering from deteriorating mental health. “All this comes at a time where there's a lot of fear and uncertainty due to the economic situation in Lebanon and due to Covid. It’s a crisis on top of a crisis on top of a crisis,” she says.

“There are so many families that were already struggling, they lost their businesses, they lost their jobs...and now they have the explosion and they lost their houses. So it's really a lot of traumatic elements on top of each other.”

The mental health of children in particular was a major concern. Terre des hommes, another Swiss NGO that had personnel based in Beirut, immediately set about providing psychological first aid for children, who are particularly susceptible to suffering long-term mental health effects as a result of trauma.

“When [children] are exposed to a traumatic event of such magnitude and something that was so unexpected, there is a high possibility that if you don’t provide psychological first aid and support in the first hours they might develop PTSD, anxiety or stress later that can negatively affect both their mental and physical health in the long term,” says Jelena Vujanovic, programme coordinator for Terres des hommes’ Lebanon delegation.

Terres des hommes found that 87 per cent of children needed psychological support following the blast, with widespread reports of anxiety, stress, fear, and insomnia. Child protection needs remain extremely high. The compounding effects of the blast damage and rising Covid-19 cases mean Lebanon’s child protection services are restricted, as is education. Rising levels of poverty also mean many families do not have the means to care for their children. “If you ask children how they feel, they find it difficult to project themselves into the future, it's going to take a lot of resilience from them to build up hope again,” says Vujanovic.

Beirut's migrant population was also acutely affected by the blast, which largely destroyed the port area that was home to many migrant communities — communities where many were already in a vulnerable state due to the compounded effects of Lebanon's economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Caritas, another Swiss NGO operating in Beirut, provided emergency food, shelter, and legal support for the worst-hit communities. Volunteers quickly helped families repair their houses and offered protection to migrants who were at risk of abuse, as well as running psychological support sessions for adults and children from all over the city.

“Before the blast, people were desperate because the financial situation was extremely hard,” says Sarah Omrane, Lebanon programme manager for Caritas. “For a lot of people, they were not able to afford a basic income to live ... And then this happened.

“It's enough to walk the streets and to see the faces and to hear everyone make the same comment — we're too tired, we cannot take it anymore, what's going to happen to us? '”

As cases of Covid-19 continue to rise and winter closes in, worries are mounting in Beirut. The lockdown that has been extended to many areas in Lebanon has not yet been imposed in the capital, apparently in order to give people the chance to continue rebuilding their homes. But that has allowed the virus to spread, and hospital capacity is still down following the explosion.

As the city struggles to recover, aid from Swiss citizens and others is more crucial than ever, humanitarians say. “I wish things won't get worse because we need to help people, but the economy and Covid is really challenging us,” says Omar, of Medair. “We really need the international community to help Lebanon.”