TORONTO — Pediatrician Rawane Dagher Tawileh and her husband Philippe Tawileh had been considering leaving Lebanon to come to Canada for months before a massive explosion ripped through the port of nearby Beirut.
But after Tuesday’s terrifying ordeal, they say they are more sure than ever: they want out.
“I don’t want to live in Lebanon anymore,” Philippe told CTV News Channel on Wednesday morning. “I don’t want to live in a country where my children feel threatened.”
The family of five currently live in Byblos, 40 kilometres away from Beirut. Even across that distance, they heard it loud and clear when two blasts — the second one much larger — echoed out from Beirut.
“We were all at home, watching TV with the kids,” Rawane said. They went out on the balcony after they heard the explosion, trying to figure out if it had been a bomb. When they turned on the TV, immediately they “started to see images of injured people, of buildings that were destroyed.”
Rawane immediately left to rush to her work, a local hospital. She knew that there was a large hospital in Beirut that would have been “completely destroyed because it was very close to the blast,” and that “all the hospitals in Beirut [would be] flooded with injuries.”
When she arrived at the hospital, she said people were lined up outside, many covered in blood. As someone who works with kids, what caught her eye most was the children.
“There were parents carrying their children,” she said.
She added that some had “immunocompromised children, children that had cancer, who were severely injured because of the blast [hitting other hospitals.]”
In some cases, there were injured children without their parents — because their parents had either gotten separated from them in the chaos, or had been killed.
“I cannot describe,” Rawane said. “Even older physicians than me, who … outlived many civil wars, they haven’t seen this.”
The explosion, which created a crater 200 metres wide, left hundreds of people trapped under rubble. So far, 135 people have been confirmed dead, with around 5,000 people injured.
It is believed to have been a chemical explosion, which occurred after a fireworks warehouse at the port caught fire.
Investigators say that ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive chemical, had been stored secretly at the port for years before it triggered the enormous explosion. Several port officials have already been placed under house arrest.
The experience shook the entire Tawileh family — from those living in Lebanon, to those living a world away, in Montreal.
Philippe’s brother and parents both live in Montreal.
“They were very terrified,” he said. “They started calling us every five minutes: ‘Please, do not go out, stay at home, don’t go to Beirut.’”
He said his sister, who also lives in Lebanon, was in a shopping mall when the explosion hit. All the glass in the store came raining down on her and the other shoppers.
Luckily, she escaped injury by sheltering under a table, but “she was traumatized,” Philippe said.
“The kids are still afraid. We are afraid,” he said. “Yesterday, lots of kids lost their parents, and lots of parents lost their kids. For no reason.”
The couple said they had friends who died in the explosion, but Rawane acknowledged that they were “some of the lucky ones.
“We live outside of Beirut. People in the capital are really severely injured. Their homes, they are totally destroyed. They had to sleep last night in houses with no windows and no doors.”
She said they’ve been worried for months about continuing to live in Lebanon because of the country’s financial crisis, but this was the tipping point.
Now, the couple says they are “very interested to go to Canada, at least for our children to feel safe.”
Their youngest child is already a Canadian citizen because Rawane gave birth to him in Montreal in 2018. They hope their family ties will help them in their quest to come to Canada on a more permanent basis.
A job offer for Rawane at a hospital in Quebec seems to be a way out for the family. But leaving the country in the wake of a disaster such as this — and amid a global pandemic — is no simple matter.
“My wife is a pediatrician,” Philippe said. “She has a lot of patients in the hospital. She wants to treat them before she can leave.”
He added that after Rawane left the house the day of the explosion to go tend to patients, she didn’t return until 4:00 a.m.
“She was really exhausted. And today, at 8 o’ clock in the morning, she went back to the hospital to check on her patients.”
Rawane was also concerned that the fallout from the explosion could lead to more shortages in medications at the hospitals.
“Already, there are shortages,” she said.
“Yesterday, people were being operated [on] in the parking lot in Beirut, near the hospitals, … with the light of the cellular phones of the doctors, without anesthesia because there were no more anesthesia in the hospitals.”
Global Affairs Canada said in a statement that it is closely monitoring the “tragic situation” in Beirut, and has received one request for consular assistance thus far.
With files from the Canadian Press
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