On the ground in Beirut, aid worker turns to Christ each day

In the aftermath of Beirut’s port explosion, surrounded by devastation, anger and civil unrest, Rami Shamma says he’s putting Christ in the centre of his work and turning to him many times a day.

“I think at a time of unknown and at the time of fear, one of the first things that gives you hope is your faith in God, to be very honest,” he says, via a Skype video call from his car. “Because the first level of, you know, spiritual connection that one person would have, when we don’t know where we’re going to, is God.”

Shamma is World Vision Lebanon‘s Field Operations Director and his car is parked in Karantina, just a kilometre or two from the site of last Tuesday’s devastating explosion. World Vision’s base is at Karantina, where it is one of many aid agencies on the ground in Beirut dealing with the fall-out of a blast that killed at least 137 people and injured another 5,000.

One week on, hundreds are still missing and up to 300,000 people have been displaced from their homes – a devastating blow for a country already reeling in an economic crisis.

Food, financial crisis and civil unrest

People’s immediate needs in Beirut – food and shelter – are significant. According to Shamma, People whose homes were destroyed are either staying with relatives or friends, or remain in damaged building to protect their possessions from looters. He says that a systemic response to providing shelter for displaced families may well be needed in the future.

The more urgent need now is food.

Despite early concerns which were widely reported, Shamma says the issue with people obtaining food is not a result of import logistics due to Lebanon’s main port having been destroyed. A temporary port has already been established.

Rather, the problem is the exorbitant cost of food – a consequence of the country’s economic situation.

“What we are we’re looking at is the Lebanese pound’s inflation,” explains Shamma. “We’re talking about high prices and the inability for many people to buy the food in the first place, due to the economic situation and the fact many people are unemployed … Even until the end of May, we had 470,000 people that were unemployed.”

Considering the bad economic situation, the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the explosion, Shamma says almost every Lebanese family has been affected in 2020.

He shares a story about a woman whose husband has not been working for the past six months and whose house was damaged in the blast. She sustained some injuries. As if that wasn’t hardship enough, Shamma says “she didn’t have money, not only to buy food, but even to buy hygiene kits to clean off the bloodstains from the floor”.

“People want to know the truth – want to know what actually happened and why.” – Rami Shamma

Lebanese citizens are also angered about the cause of the blast. While still officially unconfirmed, it is believed to be the result of government negligence when 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate – equivalent to around 1.2 kilotonnes of TNT  – confiscated by the Lebanese government from an abandoned ship was stored in the port, without proper safety measures for six years.

Unsurprisingly, the blast has sparked the powder-keg of Lebanese civil unrest. Beirut’s streets have been filled with people protesting a government that many citizens believe are criminally negligent at best, and corrupt at worst. These protests have resulted in the resignation of the entire Lebanese government with President Michel Aoun accepting the resignation – including Prime Minister Hassan Diab – on Monday.

Shamma says the resignations have done little to diminish the fury of Lebanese citizens.

“The highest percentage of the Lebanese population have had either friends who have been injured or who have died in this disaster. So it has impacted nearly every single [household] in Lebanon,” he explains.

“And considering that this it is not yet known who the accountable entity or body or people are, I would believe that the anger would still be the same. People want to know the truth – want to know what actually happened and why.”

“The government resigning would put the country in – we call it faragh… it’s a vacuum. A political vacuum in terms of the executive entity leading the country …  So, people will still be going on the streets … We really want to see things change in the country.”

Hope, faith and a realistic outlook

Shamma, like many Lebanese people, is realistic but hopeful regarding the state of his homeland.

“I have two sons, the eldest six, and the youngest is four and a half. At a certain point we were so connected to the country. And now we have reached a point where we have this question-mark present, you know? Whether we stay not only for us, but for the future of our kids.”

” I really want to see change happening in the country, because I would want my kids to grow up in this country. But I would want them to grow up in a better situation than the one that I grew up in,” he says.

“I would rather not have my son wake up at 2am and telling me ‘I’m hearing shooting outside.'” – Rami Shamma

Born during Lebanon’s civil war that spanned from 1975 to 1990, Shamma says he has seen the country go through many challenges. He does not want his own children to have the same experiences.

“I would rather not have my son wake up at 2am and telling me ‘I’m hearing shooting outside.’ I would rather them have a good, dignified life as a normal child would have,” he says.

For now, the whole family is relying on God’s strength to face their daily hardships. “To be honest, we are – me and my family – are going to him every single day, lots of times during the days, just for his guidance on what to do in the country,” he says.

“And I believe that this is the centre of our work [at World Vision], especially as a Christian organisation.

“We’re putting Christ in the middle of our interventions and we would want this love that God has for us to be directed towards the people who were impacted in the explosion.”

Response efforts on the ground

As World Vision Lebanon’s Field Operations Director, Shamma’s capacity to deal with the details of disaster response is evident as he succinctly outlines work the organisation is undertaking on the ground.

“So, with World Vision, we have been working in Lebanon since 1975. And currently we have responded to nearly every emergency that has happened in the country,” he says.

“Now we are working on the sheltered component with the different households, where we will be providing either cash assistance or shelter kits for the household – for the houses and the families – to be able to re-build their house or rehabilitate them.

“We will be also distributing food kits and hygiene kits. And that will be a specialised hygiene kit as well for the children.

“The last component would be the mental health and psycho-social support. Here we’re talking about psychological first aid, especially for children who went through this experience – dramatic, traumatising experience … Also for the parents, to see how they can support their children, and how to cope with this situation they are going through.”

“Each organisation is working within the sector of their expertise.” – Rami Shamma

He’s also across the how and why of various aid agencies and other organisations, who are coordinating their efforts in Beirut for maximum effect.

“People are now working in coordination with each other and trying to see how this can work in a better way.”

“If we don’t coordinate the efforts, then there will be people who are vulnerable and who we will not be able to reach out to,” he says.

Shamma explains that it is UN organisation OCHA that has been tasked with coordinating different sectors with the government. He also reports that international community INGOs and NGOs have increased their presence in the field during the past week.

“Each organisation is working within the sector of their expertise,” he explains. “So I’m now here in Karantina … where we have set up a tent and we are doing some needs assessment with the community members. And basically, according to those needs, we will be designing the interventions.

“And while waiting for the needs assessment to be completed, we are actually distributing food parcels. We are distributing hygiene kits. We are also assessing the shelter situation for many of the households … that have been damaged or destroyed.”

A prayer request for Eternity’s readers – and thanks for solidarity

When asked what Eternity‘s readers can specifically pray for about the situation in Lebanon, Shamma pauses to think before he responds.

“I would request prayer for wise leadership and the country to be able to pass on through this rough time. I would also pray for … wisdom, as well, for the people to know exactly what to call for,” he says.

“Thank you for the solidarity … This is what brings us hope.” – Rami Shamma

“And I would want prayers for the people who have been impacted to try and get out of this with the least consequences possible, because this has not impacted only the infrastructure or the human bodies in terms of injuries – but it has really impacted the souls of the people.

“And prayers for people to be able to get out of this fear from living in this country and living in the city.”

In a final word, Shamma asks us to pass on a message of gratitude.

“Thank you for the solidarity, for everyone in the international community, including Australia. This is what brings us hope. This is what gives us hope to be able to get out of this together,” he says.

“You know, it brings us faith in humanity to see so many people who are supportive and feeling the pain we have felt last week, and we are still.”