BEIRUT: Khaled Said had a defeated demeanor and huge bags under his eyes as he surveyed his ruined home, over a month after a massive blast at Beirut Port.
Despite a flood of NGOs and volunteers into Karantina, Said's floors, ceilings and walls still have huge cracks. With nowhere to go, Said’s family remains cramped in the one livable bedroom.
“We’ve had help but only for food,” he said. Asked when he would receive help fixing the property Said shrugged wearily, “perhaps in one day, 10 days, 10 weeks. We help each other, we’ve been here for 80 years.”
Several residents in the lower-income neighborhood of Karantina told The Daily Star that multiple NGOs have visited their homes taking measurements and photos of the damage. However, after these visits, many residents said they had been left in the dark as to when they’ll receive the help they need for their life to return to a semblance of normality.
Slumping down on a chair in front of his home, Said seemed to have little energy for anger or resentment. Other people in Karantina were more agitated. “We heard a lot of promises, but we didn’t see any solutions. I filled out more than 20 questionnaires and so far, nothing. We cleaned the glass but nothing else,” Walid Khodor said bitterly, standing in the entrance of his family's building.
Khodor's family rents out several flats in the building. He said that some residents left to stay with family members, but others had no choice but to stay in their severely damaged apartments.
In Karantina, the rebuilding work appeared to be unevenly distributed, with some streets full of volunteers and NGOs busily working on repairing homes while others appeared empty. Some residents in Karantina were angered that other parts of the neighborhood were being prioritized.
Speaking over the phone, professor Mona Fawaz, who is part of the Beirut Urban Lab research team at the American University of Beirut, said that NGOs need to put residents at the center of the rebuilding process.
“The tenants are very disempowered ... they don’t hold the process in their hands,” Fawaz said.
Knowing when he was getting help had made all the difference to Levon Kelekian. He sat outside his car mechanic shop and seemed relaxed and happy despite his flat having laid in ruins for over a month.
Lifting a hand off his tummy, he gestured at his neighbor's apartments, “they fixed this, now they finished here,” beaming he added, “and tomorrow it’s my turn.”
TRAUMA AND DISPLACEMENT
For some in Karantina, the physical damage of the blast has gone, but the psychological impact lingers on. Ghassan Abdel-Hadib stared at the wall as he recalled the evening of the explosion, he struggled to hold himself together as he spoke about his wife screaming and seeing his neighbors covered in blood.
“The problem, it's inside the heart,” he said, his voice shaking with emotion, “I can’t understand this explosion.”
In the neighboring building, Charbel Salima was similarly upset, “I’m very scared, when I sleep I’m scared, and when I’m awake I’m scared,” he said. Residents told The Daily Star about loud noises causing panic among children since the blast.
Tima Deryan, whose been working with the organization Borderless NGO since the explosion, said that in free drawing sessions, in the days after the blast, many children drew dead bodies and destroyed buildings. Israa Ouwayza, a psychologist at Borderless NGO, said that for many people signs of trauma and PTSD will only start to emerge in the coming weeks and months.
For people in Karantina dealing with the trauma of the blasts, it’s important that they remain close to their community, Ouwayza explained. “They get attached to their home, neighbors and neighborhood. It’s still their safe place,” Ouwayza said. Unfortunately, as residents turn to their neighbors for emotional and material support, some face displacement as landlords move to knock down old damaged buildings.
Abdel-Hadib has recently been asked by his landlord to leave the home he has lived in for over 20 years. “For 20 years until right now, we’ve had no problem. When the explosion happened, he asked us to leave the house. He wants to build a new one” he said, looking around in despair, “I don’t know how to change his mind. He asked us to leave the house in three months. A whole family out in this situation.” He said that when NGOs came to his building to fix the roof, his landlord furiously tried to stop them.
The motivation for many of the landlords is to remove tenants who have old pre-1992 rental contracts. The monthly rent on these contracts is stabilized, making the tenants far less profitable. Some landlords like Abdel-Hadib’s will be seeking to show that the properties are no longer safe to live and gain legal permission to knock them down.
For Fawaz, the potential displacement of tenants was deeply saddening. However, she said that the rental system has created a difficult situation, whereby landlords make next to no profit or a loss on tenants. “The right to housing should not be individual landlords’ duty,” she said. Subsequently, she added it was unsurprising that landlords would seek to gain permission to knock down buildings damaged in the explosion.
However, regardless of the flaws in Beirut’s old rent stabilizing laws, the potential impact on the communities in Karantina could be tragic. Nadine Bekdache, the co-founder of Public Works Studio who analyze housing in Beirut, recently told The Daily Star that over half of tenants in Karantina have old rental contracts.
In a barbershop in Karantina, the topic of landlords seeking to knock down the buildings animated the room. The two brothers who run the barbershop are both facing being forced to move from their community and homes.
His beard covered in foam, barbershop regular Raymond Mitri was firmly on the side of the two brothers: “It’s not right, where are they going to go now? People should show solidarity.”