Rising from the ashes with a little help from volunteers
Erma Bombeck, the famed American columnist, once said: “Volunteers are the only human beings on the face of the earth who reflect this nation's compassion, unselfish caring, patience, and just plain loving one another.” This is exactly what I experienced when I participated in the rehabilitation of damaged homes following the October 19, 2012 car bomb in the heart of the vibrant neighborhood of Ashrafieh in Beirut. The explosion killed three people, including the top intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan, and injured 136. Although I live less than 200 meters way from the site of the bombing, I was among the lucky ones who survived unscathed and whose home escaped damage. But I couldn’t even begin to imagine what the 57 families – or 135 individuals – living on that street felt. Although the circumstances that allowed such initiatives to happen were horrific, it enabled the youth to prove just how very much alive the volunteering spirit is in Lebanon by helping those innocent families whose lives were transformed in a few seconds.
First, a local NGO, OffreJoie, was leading an extraordinary initiative to help get these families back into their homes. The first day I volunteered was the first day we were allowed to enter the damaged homes to start removing debris and glass. The smell of burnt cars, dried blood, rubble and garbage was suffocating. The situation was far worse than the images on TV. Many lost everything: their homes were burned down before their eyes, taking all their material memories in the flames. Loved ones - mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, and friends - were badly hurt, bleeding and unconscious as ambulances rushed in and out to evacuate the wounded. The atmosphere in the neighborhood was that of fear, shock that such a terrible incident happened in a residential and busy street in the midst of the day.
From all over Lebanon -- North, South, and Bekaa regardless of religion, political affiliation, or ethnicity -- a total of 1,650 volunteers came out to help, from students to adults. The atmosphere was one of true altruism with no expectation of receiving anything in return. We removed shattered glasses and rubble, emptied spoiled food from refrigerators, sanded down and painted walls, built new windows as well as cleaned the street and building.
Pictures taken a couple of days after the bomb blast (left) and at the end of the
Another team composed of four young people created a self-styled group called Ashrafieh4All. They collected food, toiletries, school supplies, clothes, pillows, bed sheets, and medicine and distributed them to affected families. And in just three weeks, the group managed to gather enough supplies to last up to two months for each family; such was the generosity of the donations.
Overall, I experienced the extent to which the Lebanese Youth appreciated the chance to help out – putting aside politics, religion or any other aspects dividing Lebanese society today. In fact, volunteers who initiated or just participated in any of these two initiatives gave a new image of the Lebanese youth –the type that truly understands the value of civic engagement and citizenship. I hope these values and appreciation of helping out those in need, while putting aside our political or religious differences, will also be experienced through the National Volunteer Service Program, a World Bank financed project with the Ministry of Social Affairs. In fact, one of the basic principles of the program is to volunteer outside of one’s own community which should help in improving social cohesion across communities and regions.