“I really didn’t believe it could happen in Lebanon – or anywhere”
British Red Cross volunteer Tala, who is from Lebanon, on the moment she first learned of the explosion in Beirut
When Red Cross volunteer Tala saw a call from her dad pop up on her phone late in the afternoon of 4 August 2020, she initially thought nothing of it. Busy working from home in London, the postdoctoral researcher planned to call him back later for a chat.
After opening her Whatsapp messages and finding a series of videos, she realised why he had called. The videos were of a huge explosion that had just devastated the port of Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon, and a city Tala is very connected to.
“The first video I saw was so shocking, I thought ‘What? Where is that?’ I really did not believe it could happen in Lebanon – I can’t believe this can happen anywhere,” said Tala.
The explosion could be heard from as far away as Cyprus, 150 miles away. Over 200 people were killed, with thousands more injured. In the aftermath, the Lebanese Red Cross made over 39,000 ambulance journeys, helped in search and rescue efforts, distributed more than 10,000 units of blood for blood transfusions, and distributed 20,000 food and hygiene parcels to people affected by the blast.
Shaken but safe
Thankfully, Tala’s friends and family, who still live in Lebanon, were safe. “They’re really shocked and devastated,” she explained at the time. “I spoke to some friends of mine that live in Beirut and I have family in Beirut and they’re still shaken. Their windows are shattered and the ceilings have fallen.”
Buildings across the city suffered extensive damage, with windows blown out and balconies collapsed. It is estimated that more than 300,000 people suffered moderate to severe damage to their homes.
“Every time someone asks me if my family and friends are OK, I feel so relieved but so upset, like ‘Oh my God, what if it was different?’ It’s really sad and scary,” said Tala.
The work of the Lebanese Red Cross
Tala has been a volunteer with the British Red Cross since 2017, after becoming involved with our Surviving to Thriving project, which supports young refugees who are new to the UK. Tala could relate to their experience of adjusting to a new country, having herself just moved to Bedfordshire to study for her PhD.
Tala says that seeing the Lebanese Red Cross’s response to the explosion was emotional for her. “Growing up [in Lebanon], I’ve always associated the Red Cross with paramedics and medical or trauma services,” she said. “Most of the ambulances are provided by their services and in an emergency, you would call the Red Cross.”
“There are lots of charities but the Red Cross does a lot in terms of being there on the ground whenever disaster strikes. They’re just always there,” she said. “I don’t know what the country would do without the Lebanese Red Cross.”
A state of emergency
The situation in Lebanon was already complex, with the country struggling with a severe economic decline, constant electricity shortages, and the Covid-19 pandemic. “The whole situation has been quite grim for the past few months, and this just [made] everything worse,” said Tala. “The country has been really paralysed with the coronavirus situation because a lot of sectors have had to close.
I DON'T KNOW WHAT THE COUNTRY WOULD DO WITHOUT THE LEBANESE RED CROSS.
Lebanon had been due to enter a complete lockdown in the days following the explosion, in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus. Instead, the country found itself in a state of emergency.
In the hours after the explosion, the Lebanese Red Cross sent all of its emergency medical support staff to the scene, with more than 75 ambulances and 375 medical responders rushing to help evacuate and treat the injured. Many people had to be taken to hospitals outside of Beirut.
In the days after the explosion, the World Health Organization assessed 55 healthcare facilities in the area and found that half of them were 'non-functional'.
How you can help
The Red Cross is continuing its Covid-19 response and providing support for people who were left homeless by the blast.
Last year, the British Red Cross released £250,000 to support the Lebanese Red Cross’s efforts, and launched the Beirut Emergency Appeal, to raise further funds towards efforts in the aftermath of the explosion.
“Whatever people can do to help, I would be grateful,” said Tala. “Even if they cannot donate, please circulate the link. The role of the Red Cross and the importance of them in the country is beyond words.”
One Red Cross delegate on the aftermath of the explosion in Beirut