A worker fixes the facade of a building damaged by Beirut blast, in Beirut Lebanon
A worker fixes the facade of a building damaged by Beirut blast, in Beirut Lebanon
Photo: Reuters
Devastation at the Beirut Port

Beirut neighborhood gets vision of hope after blast

Offre Joie (Joy of Giving) NGO has repaired Lebanese districts hit by war and violence since 1985 and now it is working to rebuild a low-income area devastated by deadly explosion in capital's port

Reuters |
Published: 03.25.21 , 21:57
The sheer scale of the destruction in Beirut's Karantina district after the massive explosion at the port last August made rebuilding a daunting feat. That was where Marc Torbey El Helou, a charity worker, came in.
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  • The low-income neighborhood was one of the closest to the blast that killed 200 people. It stands across from the giant, mutilated grain silo that has become a symbol of the tragedy.
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    לבנון ביירות אסון פיצוץ נמל אלפי פצועים הבוקר שאחרי
    לבנון ביירות אסון פיצוץ נמל אלפי פצועים הבוקר שאחרי
    Devastation at the Beirut Port
    (Photo: Reuters)
    Helou decided a day after the explosion to dedicate himself, and the aid group he runs, to rebuilding the neighborhood.
    Just removing the rubble required 300 truckloads. Some buildings needed immediate help to stop them collapsing. Helou says the same of Karantina's residents. "There were children here who would not laugh or play for months."
    The neighborhood is home to Lebanese, Syrian and other residents, a fire brigade and dozens of stores selling everything from car parts to clay pots. All were hit hard.
    Helou's charity, Offre Joie (Joy of Giving), has repaired Lebanese districts hit by war and violence since 1985.
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    Marc Torbey el Helou, head of Lebanese NGO Offre Joie, talks with volunteers in Beirut,
    Marc Torbey el Helou, head of Lebanese NGO Offre Joie, talks with volunteers in Beirut,
    Marc Torbey El Helou, head of Lebanese NGO Offre Joie, talks with volunteers in Beirut
    (Photo: Reuters)
    "Unfortunately, it means we have the experience for this," said Helou, 33, who has used a wheelchair since a diving accident in 2016.
    With the Lebanese state hollowed out by decades of corruption and failure, it fell to aid groups and volunteers like Helou to rebuild the city.
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     political graffiti is visible in front of the scene of the Aug. 4 explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon.
     political graffiti is visible in front of the scene of the Aug. 4 explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon.
    Political graffiti in front of the scene of the explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, Lebanon
    (Photo: AP)
    Offre Joie took on six blocks in Karantina and nearby. That includes the homes of about 350 families.
    More than seven months after the explosion, one of the largest non-nuclear detonations on record, many residents have yet to return. But the streets are bustling with life again, and the buildings never looked so good.
    "We never dreamed we'd have a neighborhood like this. I have called it the French neighborhood because it looks like the elegant streets in France," said Vera Yaghelian, 75, pointing from her balcony to facades painted in bright pastel colors.
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    נזקים בביירות
    נזקים בביירות
    Rescure workers in the aftermath of the explosion at Beirut Port
    (Photo: EPA)
    "Look, there's nothing more beautiful."
    Born in Karantina, the mother of four never left, even during the massacres of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.
    When she sees Helou with teams of volunteers and engineers, she often sends over coffee.
    As Helou roams the streets on his electric wheelchair, construction crews get to work and residents stop to say hello.
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    Marc Torbey el Helou, head of Lebanese NGO Offre Joie, talks with volunteers in Beirut, Lebanon
    Marc Torbey el Helou, head of Lebanese NGO Offre Joie, talks with volunteers in Beirut, Lebanon
    Marc Torbey el Helou, head of Lebanese NGO Offre Joie, talks with volunteers in Beirut, Lebanon
    (Photo: Reuters)
    One woman asks about government compensation promised but not received. Another asks about the renovation of her kitchen cabinets, and a third about the roof of her patio.
    "Without you, we would still be living in the rubble," she tells him.
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    נזקים בביירות
    נזקים בביירות
    A building damaged by the blast at Beirut Port
    (Photo: EPA)
    Helou said that after the blast, he was determined not to let his spinal cord injury stop him. "I understood that I had a mission now and I'm on it."
    The charity's budget was trapped in the bank thanks to controls imposed during Lebanon's financial crisis. But donations poured in from abroad: up to three million dollars in cash, construction material and containers full of food. Thousands of volunteers also came, including engineers and psychologists.
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    A worker fixes the facade of a building damaged by Beirut blast, in Beirut Lebanon
    A worker fixes the facade of a building damaged by Beirut blast, in Beirut Lebanon
    A worker fixes the facade of a building damaged by Beirut blast, in Beirut Lebanon
    (Photo: Reuters)
    Particularly devastating was the death of a number of young firemen and women who had rushed to put out a fire at the port just before the explosion. Their fire brigade building still needs repairs but is operational again.
    Another blow was the destruction of a decades-old local church, which was damaged during the civil war and renovated in the 1990s. The explosion brought down its ceiling and facade.
    Volunteers have rebuilt it and worshippers gathered there for mass on Christmas Eve.
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    A view shows a reconstructed building in Beirut, Lebanon
    A view shows a reconstructed building in Beirut, Lebanon
    A view shows a reconstructed building in Beirut
    (Photo: Reuters)
    Yaghelian, who recalls walking down the staircase to find each one of her neighbors wounded and bloodied last August, said she could not contain her emotions days later when she saw the neighborhood teeming with helpers.
    "They were the only ones who asked us: What do you need?"


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