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After The Big Explosion In Beirut, Volunteers Are Helping Out


In Beirut, legions of volunteers have stepped in to do aid work still needed after the blast that ripped through the city more than a month ago. The explosion was caused by thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate that had been sitting at a warehouse at the port. Many blame the government for not securing that material, and now they say they're still doing what the government should be responsible for. NPR's Ruth Sherlock, with help from Nada Homsi in Beirut, reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Arabic).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: It's hot and muggy, and a group of men and women mostly in their 20s and 30s load boxes with food supplies and log data on which families need help where. The broken-down gas station they work from has become Nation Station, a volunteer hub whose new name is proudly written in red spray paint on a cloth banner that hangs from the building.

HUSSEIN KAZOUN: It was growing with us day by day. It didn't start this way.

SHERLOCK: Hussein Kazoun is an organic farmer who says the day after the explosion, he set up a stand at this filling station in this badly damaged neighborhood and gave away his vegetables for free.

KAZOUN: We started distributing, and all of a sudden, you have people coming in the car, asking if we have - if we can give donations to people. They have stuff to give us, and we can distribute them. So we're like, for sure.

SHERLOCK: Other volunteers joined him. Today Nation Station donates everything from free food and medicines to diapers, and it's a base from which volunteers go out to try to fix broken homes. Some are learning on the job, like Gerard Al Bitar, who is a DJ by profession.

GERARD AL BITAR: Yeah. I'm on the technical team, repairing electricity mainly. I learned electricity, like, two weeks ago.

SHERLOCK: In addition to losing his prized collection of vinyl LPs, the blast badly damaged Bitar's home. Volunteering, he says, is a way to cope.

AL BITAR: Actually, I am treating my PTSD here by helping people. It's making me forget, at some point, what happened to Beirut.

SHERLOCK: Even before the explosion, Lebanon was driven to economic ruin by its corrupt leaders. Then it emerged that the blast at the warehouse in the city's port on Aug. 4 was likely the result of years of government negligence. Bitar's friend Ghadi Dagher jumps in to explain the anger Lebanese feel.

GHADI DAGHER: No one is here. Which government? We are the government now, man. People love us because we're helping them. People - (speaking Arabic) - depend on us. People here in Beirut depend on the people, not on the government.

SHERLOCK: Residents say the police and army are doing security and distributing some food but have done little else to help clear rubble or make homes habitable, so volunteers fill the void. Antoine Kalab flew home from London to help out.

ANTOINE KALAB: The first couple of days I was here, it was mostly about going up and cleaning houses from glass debris.

SHERLOCK: He walks down a destroyed street where he's doing home visits to assess needs.

KALAB: I think the house should be somewhere around here.

SHERLOCK: He enters a building through what's left of a glass door, where shards of glass hang like jagged knives.


SHERLOCK: Inside, he meets Mona Assa'ad Aramouneh, a retired woman who spends her days caring for her 90-year-old mother, who was traumatized by the blast.

MONA ASSA'AD ARAMOUNEH: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: My mother was so scared. She held onto me and began crying, don't die; are you OK, Aramouneh remembers. Her eyes well with tears.

KALAB: (Speaking Arabic).

ARAMOUNEH: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: She shows Kalab a list of medical prescriptions that she needs and tells him a hot meal would also be welcome.

ARAMOUNEH: (Speaking Arabic).

SHERLOCK: She says volunteers like Kalab are the only ones helping people in need. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MELODIUM'S "LACRYMAE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.