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Lebanese ask 'Should I stay or should I go' under pressures to rebuild

The pressures to rebuild Lebanon, to endure harsh working and living conditions and the fear of another tragedy add an inconceivable burden to people trying to make it in industries fraught with their own challenges.
A woman watches as rescue workers gather at damaged building in Lebanon's capital Beirut, in search of possible survivors from a mega-blast at the adjacent port one month ago, after scanners detected a pulse, on September 4, 2020. - Lebanese rescuers scoured rubble for a possible survivor in Beirut after the detection of a pulse drew crowds hopeful of a miracle one month on from a devastating explosion. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP) (Photo by JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images)

The huge explosion in the port of Beirut, which destroyed most of the city, took place a month ago, but the blast has had such a severe impact on the Lebanese that it feels to many it only happened just yesterday.

In the early evening of Aug. 4, Hatem Imam, co-founder of Studio Safar, one of Beirut’s iconic design studios and a mainstay in the cultural scene, left his office in Gemmayzeh neighborhood of Beirut for his home in the adjacent neighborhood of Geitawi, just a few blocks away. 

“My girlfriend and I were about to meet a friend in Mar Mikhael [Beirut neighborhood],” Imam told Al-Monitor. A work call delayed them. What happened next is nothing short of a catastrophe. “My first thoughts were that an Israeli strike hit my building. The idea of entering a new phase of war was pure terror.”

In retelling how he experienced the Aug. 4 blast, Imam echoes the uncertainty of the earliest moments that so many Beirut residents felt that evening.

Similarly for Roni Helou, founder of Lebanese namesake fashion design brand Roni Helou, a graduate of Lebanese fashion design school Creative Space Beirut, who established his brand in 2017 with a focus on local, ethical and sustainable modes of production. He was in his atelier in Mar Mikhael, which also serves as his home. “I was on my balcony and luckily decided to go inside right before it happened,” he said. The space is destroyed.

Those first days when people cleaned up the debris and distributed food to the needy didn't allow people to stop and think what would come next.

Now that the dust has settled, Helou’s thoughts turn to his devastated business. “Basically my entire livelihood and so much hard work [has vanished]. The creative district of Beirut was decimated,” Helou lamented.

The explosion was unprecedented in force and unfathomable in its trail of devastation. Expecting that their government would not take a single step to mitigate the disaster, Lebanon’s residents hit the streets the morning after, doing the work themselves. The international community, wary of filling the pockets of a government establishment too inept and mostly corrupt to ethically and efficiently handle financial aid, initiated fundraising programs of all sizes. Favorite hotspots saw GoFundMe pages opened in their names. The Lebanese street, hand in hand with the diaspora, has put in a shift to meet the humanitarian crisis.

One of the largest funds created is a Slow Factory Foundation Super Fund, which is supported by the Slow Factory Foundation , Starch Foundation, Foundation Saradar, Bureau Des Createurs, Maison Pyramide, Faux Consultancy, Roni Helou and other Beirut-based designers.

Phone calls between Helou and his friends, days after the blast, led to the idea. With everything destroyed and with the dire economic situation in the country, “I was afraid we would not be able to manage this enormous task.” The support of reputable organizations made all the difference. “They were able to spread the word and gather donations in a way we could not possibly have done.”

According to Celine Semaan, founder and executive director of Slow Factory Foundation, “This fundraiser isn’t just about supporting these individuals to rebuild their ateliers — it will support everybody in the creative ecosystem involved in these businesses.” The first phase of the Super Fund will see 39 designers and creatives receive support, mostly from the fashion industry, a staple of the Lebanese creative and cultural scene and a proud Lebanese export. The target is to be met within five years.

Cynthia Merhej, a fashion designer of the brand Renaissance Renaissance, was at her parent’s home outside Beirut when the explosion happened. “When the explosion happened the first people I thought of were my friends who live and work in the area,” she told Al-Monitor.

A couple of days after the tragedy, Merhej started volunteering on the ground. It was clear the government wasn’t going to help the residents, so she decided to raise funds for businesses she knows well — all badly damaged due to the blast. “I imagined a future Lebanon where we don’t have any of these creative businesses. It felt bleak,” she said.

One initiative Merhej launched was to help Studio Safar, whose offices were destroyed, to alleviate some of the financial burden on the studio.

Whether through messages of support, helping clear the rubble or sending donations, “the message was clear,” Imam said. “Please keep doing what you’re doing.”

Many of the establishments that were damaged in the blast have struggled already for years. It is no surprise then that, with all the funds pouring into Lebanon to help rebuild Beirut, some are asking themselves if they want to be part of yet another rebuilding process.

Bashar Assaf, a clothes designer with the fashion brand Diamondogs, was in Sodeco neighborhood when the blast happened. Diamondog’s shop is next to the home of his business partner in Gemmayzeh. All of it was destroyed. “I’ve been looking into leaving for a while now,” he told Al-Monitor. “With the uprising [of October 2019] we got excited that maybe we should stay. Due to the financial crisis, we had to let some employees go. I was planning on leaving, it was just taking a bit of time.”

Even though the shop was destroyed, Assaf and Pascale Habib, founder and creative director of Diamondogs, decided not to take part in any of the fundraising initiatives. Habib will rebuild it together with her own home. 

Assaf believes that, given the extent of the damage, cases must be prioritized. “Some people are homeless and can’t afford to eat. If you rebuild your store there are a hundred around you that are gone,” he added. Regardless, he is leaving to settle in the Gulf for a while and operate from there. He said his closest friends are doing the same.

“People are fed up,” Imam said. “Some days I feel not only like leaving but calling on everyone else to leave too. In the past two weeks, I bid farewell to my brother and two friends. I have contemplated having a second base outside Lebanon, but I never wanted to emigrate for good.”

Trying to rebuild an entire cultural sector while addressing the humanitarian needs of a country already ravaged by economic insolvency, political paralysis and municipal incompetence is a difficult task. Before the blast, Helou’s brand was struggling under the weight of Lebanon’s crumbling financial and social infrastructure, forcing him to try moving his studio elsewhere. There is a sense of guilt, like he is abandoning Beirut. “Shedding light on the subject is extremely important. I am looking into moving and I had a hard time taking the decision, because I felt guilty doing so,” he noted.

Former member of parliament Elias Hankach recently stated in an interview on LBC Lebanon that the total number of emigration requests has exceeded 380,000.

“Now is not the time to be policing people's decisions or passing judgement, especially when someone is trying to do all they can within their limitations,” Merhej said.

A sense of exhaustion is pertinent. While the international community has celebrated Lebanon’s supposed resilience, the Lebanese are expressing their exhaustion.

The pressures to rebuild Lebanon, to endure harsh working and living conditions, and the fear of another tragedy add an inconceivable burden on people trying to make it in industries fraught with their own challenges. The burden to rebuild their country should not fall on their shoulders, however much they may aspire to it. 

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