Beirut blast brings fresh misery to displaced Syrians in Lebanon

Beirut blast brings fresh misery to displaced Syrians in Lebanon
A man talks on the phone while seated by the rubble of a destroyed traditional building in the Gemmayzeh neighborhood after a cataclysmic port explosion which devastated Lebanon's capital Beirut. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 18 August 2020

Beirut blast brings fresh misery to displaced Syrians in Lebanon

Beirut blast brings fresh misery to displaced Syrians in Lebanon
  • Of the 177 deaths confirmed so far, 43 were Syrians working at the Port of Beirut on the evening of August 4
  • Syrians’ savings in Lebanese banks have drastically lost value since the start of the economic and financial crisis

DUBAI: It was 2012, and Lina Attar Ajami was spending the summer in Canada when a bomb went off near her neighborhood of Rawda in Damascus.

Her father called her immediately and told her not to return to Syria. “You must go to Beirut and find a house and make your life there,” Ajami recalled being told.

She followed his instructions and moved to an apartment in Saifi Village, an upscale neighborhood within walking distance of Gemmayze, the beating heart of Beirut.

“You escape a country for security. You escape a war of nine years in order to give your children security and not let them be exposed to the atrocities of war. But this — the Aug. 4 blast in Beirut — is worse than anything my family went through during the Syrian civil war,” Ajami told Arab News by phone from Beirut.

Even before the blast, Lebanon was in a state of free fall following months of economic and political turmoil marked by mass unemployment, hyperinflation and social unrest.

But the devastation caused by the blast has wreaked unprecedented havoc on the Lebanese capital, leaving an estimated 300,000 homeless and an even larger number of people in need of assistance of some kind.

Of the 177 deaths confirmed so far, 43 were Syrians working at the Port of Beirut, according to a statement from the Syrian Embassy in the Lebanese capital. The UN refugee agency has put the Syrian toll at 34, of which eight bodies are still missing.

The workers were refugees, earning daily as little as 50,000 Lebanese pounds  ($33 at official rate, $6.6 at market rate).

Their bodies, like their existence up until Aug. 4, are unlikely to be accounted for.

Each of their families, living in the blast-devastated capital of a crisis-torn country, has likely lost not only its breadwinner but also its livelihood.

A picture of victims is displayed inside their damaged apartment facing the port of Beirut following the cataclysmic explosion. (AFP)

Ajami’s 12-year-old daughter was severely wounded in the blast. “We live on the 11th floor, so I could see the port. I heard my daughter screaming in the salon. I ran there and found her covered in blood. Blood was all over the walls,” she said.

Ajami’s husband carried his daughter downstairs and dashed off in search of a hospital, but they were full beyond capacity. “People were getting into fights just to get their loved ones admitted,” she said. “It was hell.”

The couple decided to take their daughter to south Beirut, where they found a hospital willing to admit her. She has since undergone two surgeries and is currently recovering.

Volunteers distribute aid supplies to those affected by the cataclysmic explosion in Beirut's port area, on August 12, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

“There’s nothing more disturbing than thinking you’re in the safety of your home and a sudden blast takes away all the security you thought you had in your adopted country,” Ajami said. “As Syrians, this is our second loss. It’s beyond description.”

The Syrians currently in Lebanon, estimated at 910,000, are a mixture of registered and unregistered refugees, as well as migrant workers and others.

Those who fled Syria because of the civil war kept most, if not all, of their life savings in banks in Lebanon.

The value of their deposits has eroded drastically since the start of the economic and financial crisis.


Syrians in Lebanon

* At least 34 Beirut blast victims were Syrian workers.

* Lebanon hosts 890,000 Syrian refugees.

* Two-thirds of the refugees live below poverty line.

* Lebanon’s estimated population is 6 million.

“Syrians relocated to Lebanon and placed all their wealth in Lebanese banks, knowing that no other country would agree to open bank accounts for Syrians,” said Ajami. “Their savings have dwindled in real terms as a result of the stringent capital controls.”

According to Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, the Syrian government estimated in January the total amount belonging to Syrians in Lebanese banks at about $45 billion — roughly a quarter of deposits held by Lebanese banks.

That said, many Syrians are content with having survived the blast that shattered Beirut. “I was sure by the time someone asked about me I’d be dead,” said Haidara M., a kickboxing instructor who left Syria in 2016 in search of a better life in the Lebanese capital.

At the time of the blast, caused by a long-neglected stock of ammonium nitrate, Haidara was in the bathroom of his apartment.

Lina Attar Ajami’s apartment, where her 12-year-old daughter was severely wounded in the blast. (Supplied: Lina Attar Ajami)

Freeing himself of the debris that fell on him, he ran out into the middle of a street in the hope that someone would help him. “I’m afraid of dying in a country without any family to bury me,” he told Arab News.

A Syrian who lives in the Lebanese capital and works with an international NGO said: “Syrians living in Beirut have been affected on an emotional level. They fled Syria to Lebanon to live in a safer place, but are now trying to leave Lebanon for the same reason.”

He added: “We still don’t have clear information regarding Syrians living in Lebanon who’ve been affected by the blast. No one knows the names of the 43 Syrians who died at the port.”

One Syrian national who has returned to Damascus following the explosion is Rana Tamimi, who specializes in marketing and communications.

She was allowed to cross the border into Syria after she took a COVID-19 test (for which she paid 150,000 Lebanese pounds) in Beirut and got a negative result.

A general view shows the Moroccan field hospital in Karantina neighbourhood near the port of Beirut, on August 12, 2020. (AFP)

“I moved to Beirut from Damascus eight years ago after a big explosion behind my house in Damascus,” she told Arab News.

“There was a lot of fear in the streets then and I had to leave. The effect of the explosion that happened in Beirut was equal to the sum of the horrors of eight years of war.”

Nimat Bizri, a half Algerian, half Syrian woman married to a Lebanese man who has lived in Lebanon for 24 years, said: “Since the blast, I feel helpless and depressed … The border to Syria has remained closed for three months now due to COVID-19. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Bizri runs the Social Support Society, an NGO founded in 2006 that provides quality programs and opportunities to Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. It caters to 2,500 students spread over five centers located in different villages.

But Syrians face an altogether new challenge in the wake of the destruction in Beirut. Cases have come to light of discrimination against migrants and refugees trying to access emergency aid.

“No support is being given to Palestinian and Syrian refugees who’ve been working and living in Beirut,” said Bizri. “The Lebanese people haven’t been giving them support since the explosion.”

Dalia Al-Ogaily, a Syrian-Iraqi resident of Beirut who previously lived in Syria, recently joined a group of friends who had volunteered to do social work in different parts of the city.

Survivors of Beirut's August 4 blast are still in shock over a disaster that disfigured their city. The earth-shaking explosion killed 171 people and wounded more than 6,000, a sickening blow to a country already in crisis. (AFP)

“On our way to downtown Beirut, we spotted the Banin Charity Association in action so we offered to help,” she told Arab News.

“Initially they allowed us to help people in the neighborhood by interviewing them and assessing their needs. However, after a few hours, when we ran into a Syrian woman in need, the coordinator of the charity told us not to help her because, according to its policy, it’s meant to help only Lebanese.”

The incident sparked controversy on social media that culminated in the resignation of Fadi Al-Khateeb, a renowned Lebanese basketball player, from his position as the Banin Charity Association’s goodwill ambassador.

Complaints of discrimination against non-Lebanese in aid distribution also prompted Alexandra Tarzikhan, a Syrian human rights lawyer based in Chicago, to comment: “The blast didn’t discriminate when it chose whose lives to take and which houses to destroy.”

In recent years, Gulf Cooperation Council member countries have become the home of many Arab families fed up with their home countries’ poverty, corruption, sectarian politics and conflict.

Firefighters carry the coffin of their colleague Joe Noun, who was killed in Beirut's massive blast, during his funeral at the fire station in Karantina neighbourhood near the port on August 12, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

Syrians and Lebanese are among the tens of thousands who have chosen to start a new life in the UAE, drawn by the lure of peace and financial security.

Leaving his home in Damascus in 2012 to escape the war, Alaa Krimed lived for two years in Beirut before moving to Dubai.

Now the Syrian-Palestinian is the artistic director of the Sima Dance Co. in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue.

“I loved Beirut, but I also hated Beirut because I struggled a lot there,” he told Arab News, recalling the need to reapply for residency papers every three months. “The people are wonderful but the government is corrupt, and this is why I moved from Beirut to Dubai.”


Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor

Egypt to test visitors from countries with COVID-19 variants on arrival

Egypt to test visitors from countries with COVID-19 variants on arrival
Updated 08 May 2021

Egypt to test visitors from countries with COVID-19 variants on arrival

Egypt to test visitors from countries with COVID-19 variants on arrival

CAIRO: Egypt will require all visitors arriving from “countries where variants of the virus have appeared” to take a rapid COVID-19 test upon arrival, its health ministry said in a statement on Saturday.
The statement did not specify the countries from which passengers would take the 15-minute DNA test, called ID NOW.
Egypt’s new coronavirus cases have been steadily rising in recent weeks. On Saturday it reported 1,125 new cases and 65 deaths, although experts say that reflects only a fraction of total cases.
In a statement on Saturday, Egypt’s tourism ministry clarified that restaurants and coffee shops attached to hotels were exempt from a recent decree that such outlets as well as malls and stores would close at 9 p.m. local time (GMT +2) in order to not affect tourism.

Medics: 200 Palestinians hurt in Al-Aqsa clashes with police

Medics: 200 Palestinians hurt in Al-Aqsa clashes with police
Updated 08 May 2021

Medics: 200 Palestinians hurt in Al-Aqsa clashes with police

Medics: 200 Palestinians hurt in Al-Aqsa clashes with police
  • Clashes erupted when Israeli police deployed heavily as Muslims were performing evening prayers at Al-Aqsa

JERUSALEM: A night of heavy clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound and elsewhere in Jerusalem left more than 200 Palestinians wounded, medics said Saturday, as the city braced for even more violence after weeks of unrest.
Nightly protests broke out at the start of the holy month of Ramadan over police restrictions at a popular gathering place and have reignited in recent days over threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinians from their homes in east Jerusalem, which is claimed by both sides in the decades-old conflict.
It was unclear what set off the violence at Al-Aqsa, which erupted when Israeli police in riot gear deployed in large numbers as thousands of Muslim worshippers were holding evening prayers at the sprawling hilltop esplanade.
Throughout the night large groups of protesters could be seen hurling rocks as Israeli police fired rubber bullets and stun grenades. At one point, the police entered one of the buildings in the complex, which includes the Al-Aqsa mosque and the iconic golden Dome of the Rock.
The Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service said 88 of the wounded were hospitalized. The Palestinian Health Ministry said 83 people were wounded by rubber-coated bullets, including three who were shot in the eye, two with serious head injuries and two with broken jaws.
The Israeli police said protesters hurled stones, fireworks and other objects at them, wounding six officers who required medical treatment. “We will respond with a heavy hand to all violent disturbances, riots and attacks on our forces,” it said in a statement late Friday.
The Al-Aqsa mosque compound is the third holiest site in Islam. It is also the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount because it was the location of the biblical temples. It has long been a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was the epicenter of the 2000 Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
Some 70,000 worshippers had attended the final midday Friday prayers of Ramadan at Al-Aqsa, the Islamic endowment that oversees the site said. Thousands protested afterwards, waving the green flags of the Islamic militant group Hamas and chanting pro-Hamas slogans.
At the beginning of Ramadan in mid-April, Israel blocked off a popular gathering spot where Palestinians traditionally socialize at the end of their daylong fast. The move set off two weeks of clashes before Israel lifted the restrictions.
But in recent days, protests have grown over Israel's threatened eviction in Sheikh Jarrah in east Jerusalem of dozens of Palestinians embroiled in a long legal battle with Israeli settlers trying to acquire property in the neighborhood.
The United States said it was “deeply concerned” about both the violence and the threatened evictions, and was in contact with leaders on both sides to try and de-escalate tensions.
“It is critical to avoid steps that exacerbate tensions or take us farther away from peace,” the US State Department said in a statement. “This includes evictions in East Jerusalem, settlement activity, home demolitions, and acts of terrorism.”
The European Union also urged calm. It said the potential evictions were of “serious concern," adding that such actions are "illegal under international humanitarian law and only serve to fuel tensions on the ground.
Neighboring Jordan, which made peace with Israel in 1994 and is the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, has also condemned Israel's actions, as has the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, which normalized relations with Israel last year in a US-brokered deal.
Israelis and Palestinians are bracing for more unrest in the coming days.
Sunday night is “Laylat al-Qadr” or the “Night of Destiny,” the most sacred in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Worshippers will gather for intense nighttime prayers at Al-Aqsa.
Sunday night is also the start of Jerusalem Day, a national holiday in which Israel celebrates its annexation of east Jerusalem and religious nationalists hold parades and other celebrations in the city. On Monday, an Israeli court is expected to issue a verdict on the evictions.
Israel captured east Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza — territories the Palestinians want for their future state — in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally and views the entire city as its capital.

Drone attack on Iraqi base hosting US troops

Drone attack on Iraqi base hosting US troops
Updated 08 May 2021

Drone attack on Iraqi base hosting US troops

Drone attack on Iraqi base hosting US troops
  • The US accuses Iran-backed militia groups of launching regular rocket attacks against its troops in Iraq

BAGHDAD: A drone strike early on Saturday targeted a military base in Iraq that hosts US troops, causing only minor damage and no casualties, Iraq’s military and the US-led coalition said.
The pore-dawn attack damaged a hangar, tweeted coalition spokesman Col. Wayne Marotto. He said the attack was under investigation. An Iraqi military statement also said no losses were reported.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. The US has blamed Iran-backed militia groups for previous attacks, most of them rocket attacks that have targeted the American presence in Baghdad and military bases across Iraq.
Drone strikes are less common. In mid-April, an explosive-laden drone targeted the military section of the international airport in Irbil, in Iraq’s northern Kurdish-run region, causing no casualties or damages. The base also hosts US troops.
The attacks have been frequent since a US-directed drone strike killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport last year. Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis was also killed in the attack. The strike drew the ire of mostly Shiite Iraqi lawmakers and prompted parliament to pass a non-binding resolution to pressure the Iraqi government to oust foreign troops from the country.
The Biden administration has resumed strategic talks with Baghdad, initiated under President Donald Trump, in which the future of US troop presence in Iraq is a central point of discussion.

Philippines, Egypt added to Oman’s travel ban list

Philippines, Egypt added to Oman’s travel ban list
Updated 08 May 2021

Philippines, Egypt added to Oman’s travel ban list

Philippines, Egypt added to Oman’s travel ban list
  • Omani citizens, diplomats, health workers and their families are excluded from the latest rule

DUBAI: The Philippines and Egypt were the latest inclusion in Oman’s list where travelers from the said countries are banned from entering the Sultanate.

The decision was issued by the Supreme Committee, which takes lead in the country’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic, and took effect on Friday, May 7.

Travelers from Egypt and the Philippines, and those who transited in any of the said countries during the 14 days, are particularly affected by the travel restriction a report from Times of Oman said.

Omani citizens, diplomats, health workers and their families are excluded from the latest rule but are subject to the procedures adopted upon entering the Sultanate, the report added.

Oman earlier added India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to the travel ban list, joining Sudan, Lebanon, South Africa, Brazil, Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and the United Kingdom where their residents have been barred from entering since February 24.

UAE reports 1,766 new COVID-19 cases, three deaths in last 24 hours

UAE reports 1,766 new COVID-19 cases, three deaths in last 24 hours
Updated 08 May 2021

UAE reports 1,766 new COVID-19 cases, three deaths in last 24 hours

UAE reports 1,766 new COVID-19 cases, three deaths in last 24 hours
  • The total number of recorded cases in the UAE is now at 532,710 since the pandemic began

DUBAI: UAE health authorities reported 1,766 new coronavirus cases after conducting 211,462 additional COVID-19 tests over the past 24 hours, as well three deaths fatalities from the contagious disease.

The total number of recorded cases in the UAE is now at 532,710 since the pandemic began, with 1,607 confirmed deaths, a report from state news agency WAM said.

The Ministry of Health and Prevention reiterated its call for residents to adhere coronavirus protocols and maintain social distancing to ensure public health and safety.

Meanwhile, 141,283 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been provided during the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of doses provided to residents and citizens to 11,048,547.

The rate of vaccine distribution now stands at 111.71 doses per 100 people.