The scooter engines snorted out, and Sara el-Sayed swung herself down to the pavement outside the third damaged building she had visited that afternoon, two carpenters in tow.
Upstairs, a woman’s blown-apart doors needed fixing. Cigarettes and cellphone in one hand, pen and paper in the other, el-Sayed jotted down dimensions as the carpenters measured empty door frames and shattered windows.
She has taken this up as her job now: volunteering to hammer together as much of the splintered city as she can before leaving it — hopefully for good.
Six days after the explosion that crushed much of Beirut, a Spanish master’s degree program in interior design notified el-Sayed that she had been accepted, a long-held dream come true.
When she leaves, she will be done with all of this, she hopes: a government whose incompetence appears to have led to the blast; a corrupt political system young Lebanese blame for aborting their futures; a country where the middle class is sinking into poverty as the politicians slow-walk economic reforms, and where the only way to survive seems to be a second passport, a job or a graduate program somewhere else.
Many Lebanese were already looking for such escape hatches before the Aug. 4 explosion. An exodus now seems inevitable.
But el-Sayed cannot think about leaving quite yet.
“I’m not running away,” said el-Sayed, 30, a Palestinian-Lebanese architect with a small custom furniture business who used to live in Gemmayzeh, one of the worst-hit neighborhoods. “I want to at least have Beirut on its feet before I go.”
As Beirut reckons with the destruction, thousands of Lebanese in their teens, 20s and 30s — rather than government personnel — have shown up to put the most damaged neighborhoods back in order, shoveling, sweeping, feeding, fixing.
Many of the volunteers have been protesting against the political system since last fall; if anyone believes Lebanon can change, it is them. Yet few say they want to stay to see whether it will. Since the explosion, countries like Canada have been hit by a wave of applications from young Lebanese seeking to emigrate, officials say.
“I used to call people sissies for leaving the country, because you’re afraid of doing the change and everything,” said Mohammed Serhan, 30, a political organizer and cleanup volunteer who protested for months.
But the explosion had altered his calculus. “Yesterday I woke up thinking, ‘I can go to the airport immediately, tell them I’m not coming to work. Go to the airport, fly to Turkey, see what happens.’”
He sighed. “It’s a little emotional. I still want to win this fight.”
El-Sayed, who had just assessed Serhan’s damaged doors and windows, jumped in. “Really, we’re fighting,” she said.
They would both keep protesting, they agreed. “But I don’t have hope,” el-Sayed said. “I’ve always wanted just to leave.”
Like young people across the Arab world, their generation is well educated yet underemployed. While some of their friends and cousins left for master’s degrees and jobs in Dubai and the West, volunteers like el-Sayed and Serhan stayed because they wanted to or had to, hoping to change their country even as it skidded toward economic ruin.
“People who are outside love the country but don’t want to come back in, and people who are inside hate the country but they don’t want to leave,” said Zein Freiha, 21, a college student who went door to door after the explosion with a plastic broom. “We hope that we have a country to come back to. But the more we discuss it, we’re all just looking at each other like, ‘OK, there really is no more hope.’”
For them, the cleanup is personal. Many of the volunteers used to live, work or socialize in the half-demolished neighborhoods of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael, drawn to their cocktails, clubs, cafes, galleries and studios.
Their Beirut is now in ruins.
El-Sayed’s former apartment was destroyed in the blast, along with friends’ homes, workplaces and cars. Doors around east Beirut were ripped from their frames. When looters slipped into the neighborhood, she began sealing off apartments. Nearly three weeks after the explosion, she had raised enough money via GoFundMe to replace about 90 doors.
One elderly couple had slept in their foyer with a heavy sewing machine pushed up against their splintered front door, fearing thieves. Others who called her had been quoted hundreds of dollars to replace their doors at a time when banks are rationing access to dollars and the Lebanese currency has lost 80% of its value.
Beyond fixing apartments and clearing broken glass and debris, the volunteers have assessed damaged buildings, searched for missing pets, delivered hot meals and diapers and even compiled what amounts to the incident’s only centralized database of missing people. (The government has not released any official data on the missing.)
While civilian volunteers go to work, soldiers sit on street corners, rifles dangling from their shoulders and cigarettes from their lips. Only about two weeks after the explosion did government personnel begin distributing food boxes and assessing damages, residents said.
A day after the blast, Hussein Kazoun, 28, an organic farmer, took over an abandoned gas station in Geitawi and started handing out vegetables. A week later, the station, which he christened Nation Station, buzzed with about 200 young volunteers.
“It’s not my job to do this,” said Josephine Abou Abdo, 29, an architect and designer-turned-volunteer who was coordinating food donations. “But if I don’t get up, people won’t get fed.”
Using the data volunteers collected from residents, Kazoun’s younger sister was mapping out the most underserved areas. Nearby sat 20 donated rolls of plastic, used to seal broken windows, that a comedian had shown up with a few days before.
As he and the volunteers have expanded Nation Station’s scope, Kazoun has also tried to persuade people to stay.
“‘We need you in this country,’” he said he was telling friends. “If it’s left to the old generation, things will stay the same.”
Abou Abdo listened with conflicting impulses. “Sometimes I think, ‘Enough,’” she said. “I just want to live in a Scandinavian country and pay taxes and live my life, you know?”
On the question of whether reform was even possible, she, like other volunteers, was caught between idealism and despair. Neither months of mass anti-government protests nor the explosion appears to have greatly weakened the ruling class, whom many Lebanese still turn to for protection and patronage despite growing consensus that they bear responsibility for the country’s problems.
At one apartment that volunteers were sweeping up, Hala Youssef, 49, who lived there, said she had waited 11 days after the explosion for government aid before giving up and accepting volunteer help.
“Nobody even came to say ‘Thank God for your safety,’” she said of the government, using the phrase Beirutis greeted each other with in the days after the blast.
At the Nation Station recently, Joe Youssef, 39, dropped off his daily donation, a truckload of vegetables and fruits that several young women were sorting into plastic bags. Youssef said he preferred donating to Nation Station over an aid group, he said, because like many Lebanese, he was suspicious of anything that might be tainted by the country’s favor-bartering class of sectarian political leaders.
“We don’t trust anyone in this country,” he said. “They could be tied to some gang.”
Disgusted with Lebanon’s corruption and seeing no future at home, he moved years ago to Dubai, where he worked in sales before returning on vacation last month.
But, he said, “When I saw the people, the crowd — not the government, not the police or anything — I’m proud to be Lebanese now, to be honest.”
New improvements had materialized at the gas station over the course of the day. Someone had welded together a metal rack to dispense the plastic rolls. Two tons of fresh vegetables had been distributed.
Sarah Barakat, 21, an architecture student overseeing the vegetables, said that she, too, planned to leave Lebanon for graduate studies.
“But I’m coming back as soon as I finish my master’s,” she said. “Who else is going to rebuild this city?”
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