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'A lot of us are still in shock': Lebanese Nova Scotians reflect on Beirut explosion

FOR ZIAFATI STORY:
 Anthony Saikali, of the Lebanese Halifax Festival, is involved in planning service this week to mourn the lives lost and damage caused by yesterday's tragic explosion...he is seen in front of Saint Antonios Antiochian Orthodox Church in Halifax Wednesday August 5, 2020. The society is sharing a link to Saint Antonio's Church which has started a fundraising campaign directed towards food, shelter, and medical needs to those directly affected by the tragedy.

TIM KROCHAK/ The Chronicle Herald
Anthony Saikali, a member of the Saint Antonios Church, is involved in planning multiple vigils this week and next week at the church to mourn the lives lost and damage caused by the tragic explosion in Beirut. He is seen in front of Saint Antonios Church in Halifax on Wednesday, August 5, 2020. The church has also started a fundraiser to raise money to provide food, shelter, and medical needs to those directly affected by the tragedy. TIM KROCHAK/ The Chronicle Herald - Tim Krochak

Rima Saba was out shopping with her brother on Tuesday when she started getting inundated with photos and videos from her family members in Beirut, where a massive explosion killed at least 135 people and injured around 5,000. 

“Our hearts just stopped and I bursted out into tears,” recalled Saba, who lives in Greenwood with her direct family.  

She said she was worried relatives on both sides of her family that live in the Lebanese capital city were hurt or killed by the tragedy, but was relieved to hear they were safe. 

Their homes, however, were ripped apart, as the blast sent shockwaves across the city and caused damage to buildings over a radius of several kilometres.   

“Their houses are completely devastated, the windows and doors broke and their homes are filled with debris,” said Saba. 

“They thought it was a nuclear bomb. They were in shock.” 

Saba’s relatives are among roughly 300,000 people who have been displaced in the aftermath of the tragedy. She said her relatives are currently staying in a resort for free in the city of Batroun, which is about a 45-minute drive from Beirut, until they figure out what to do next. 

“It’s just completely a nightmare,” said Saba. 

‘A lot of us are still in shock’

Anthony Saikali, a member of the Saint Antonios Church in Halifax, said he was similarly “in complete shock” when he learned what happened in his home country, a sentiment shared among other Lebanese people in Nova Scotia. 

“Even (more than) 24 hours later, a lot of us are still in shock, seeing images of the aftermath and still new videos and the footage of the blast itself,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. 

“It’s scary to look at.”

 

Saikali said his family members in Beirut thankfully were not killed or injured, but thousands of people have been impacted by the crisis. 

The explosion in Beirut has been “eerily” compared to the 1917 Halifax Explosion, Saikali noted, in which two ships collided in Halifax's harbour, one of them a munitions ship loaded with explosives. That explosion killed nearly 2,000 people and injured approximately 9,000 others.  

“That’s the kind of devastation we’re talking about. So for a lot of us here in the community, we’re still trying to understand what’s going on,” he said.  

Wadih Fares, Halifax's honorary consul to Lebanon, said he was also taken aback by news of the explosion, noting it happened at a time when Lebanon “has been struggling for a while now” with a financial crisis, political instability and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It’s very tough to really swallow, knowing how fragile Lebanon is at this time,” he said. 

“However, the Lebanese are very resilient people, we have gone through a lot of conflicts and we came through, and we will come through this one again.” 

Fundraising efforts to support Lebanon, vigils to mourn lives lost

Both the Saint Antonios Church and Saba have launched Beirut explosion relief funds, with donations going to the Lebanese Red Cross, which will be directed towards food, shelter and medical needs of those directly affected by the tragedy. 

The Consulate of Lebanon in Halifax, on the other hand, is sharing a link to the Lebanon Humanitarian Needs Appeal, to help the Lebanese Red Cross/Red Crescent prepare for, respond to and help individuals in Lebanon affected by humanitarian needs now and as the situation evolves. 

Rima Saba received photos captured by her cousins Roy Saba, Merry Saba and Reine Saba, who live in Beirut, where an explosion went off on Tuesday and caused damage to buildings across a radius of several kilometres. - Contributed
Rima Saba received photos captured by her cousins Roy Saba, Merry Saba and Reine Saba, who live in Beirut, where an explosion went off on Tuesday and caused damage to buildings across a radius of several kilometres. - Contributed

Saikali said the Saint Antonios Church has also delivered a letter — signed by various members of the Lebanese community in Halifax — to Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “to ask them and implore them to join some of the few other countries who have been sending aid and have committed sending aid to Lebanon at this time.” 

“That really is our focus, donating today and trying to appeal to our government to send aid overseas,” he said. 

“Because not only talking about the blast, which would devastate any city, any country, any community in the best of situations, Lebanon’s been dealing with one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern times and they can’t come back from this alone.”

The Saint Antonios Church is also hosting a vigil every evening Monday to Friday this week and next week at its Windsor Street location in Halifax to pray for all those who have been impacted by the tragedy and for “peacefulness in the region to hopefully allow Lebanon to come back stronger,” according to Saikali. The hour-long vigils will begin each evening at 6 p.m.  

Governments respond to tragedy 

Nova Scotia Immigration Minister Lena Metlege Diab, who has family in Lebanon, said she wants to thank Nova Scotians who reached out to her personally, as well as to other Lebanese people in Nova Scotia, to show their support in these tough times. 

“It’s shocking and it’s completely overwhelming,” Diab told The Chronicle Herald.

“My thoughts and prayers are first and foremost with the people suffering in Lebanon and with the entire Lebanese diaspora.” 

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage echoed these remarks. 

“Lebanon has been through such a difficult time economically, politically, and so they’ve been suffering a lot,” he said. 

“And Halifax has a very strong and vibrant Lebanese community, so this has had a very big impact on everybody in the city and Nova Scotia.” 

In response to some people calling on the municipal and provincial governments to provide aid to Lebanon, Diab and Savage said “it’s a developing situation” and “we’ll be looking how we can help, how we can support” Lebanon. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement Candians are “thinking of everyone who has been injured and all those who are trying to locate a friend or family member or have lost a loved one.” 

“We’re keeping you in our thoughts and we stand ready to assist in any way we can,” he added.

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