Lebanese Winnipeggers working to help ease ‘agony’ after Beirut explosion

By | August 5, 2020

The massive explosion that devastated the city of Beirut on Tuesday stunned members of Winnipeg’s Lebanese community. One day later, they are beginning to regroup and organize help for their friends and family. 

“I have a lot of friends — some of them, they passed away,” said Saeed Aboumrad, who worked as a police officer in Beirut. He thinks he lost at least two or three friends on the police force.

“It’s really sad. Most of them, they have kids.… They’re, like, in their 30s.”

More than 130 people died and about 5,000 were injured when 2,750 tonnes of explosive ammonium nitrate stored at the port exploded, producing a shock wave that blew doors off their hinges and ripped balconies off of buildings kilometres away.

Hospitals, filled to capacity, have been forced to turn away patients.

Destroyed buildings are visible on Wednesday, a day after a massive explosion at the port in Beirut. (Daniel Carde/Getty Images)

The destruction is unbelievable, said Lebanon-born Winnipegger Abdo El Tassi, who is president of Peerless Garments in Winnipeg.

“You can’t describe the agony that they’re going through,” he said Wednesday.

Lebanon struggling before explosion

El Tassi says his cousin teaches at a university in Beirut and felt the explosion from his house, about 20 kilometres away from the blast site.

“All their windows got shattered, but nobody got hurt,” said El Tassi.

Abdo El Tassi, president of Peerless Garments in Winnipeg, says members of the local community and the Manitoba Islamic Associaton are setting up a bank account to collect donations. (Darin Morash/CBC)

El Tassi says Winnipeg’s Lebanese community is pulling together to help Beirut.

Members of the community in Winnipeg and the Manitoba Islamic Association are setting up a bank account to allow people to donate money to help Beirut rebuild. More information about how people can donate will be released later on Wednesday, said El Tassi.

Beirut is one of the most beautiful cities in the Middle East, he said, but the country has struggled for years through several economic and political crises. People have recently suffered with food shortages, as well as widespread economic pain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This explosion is only amplifying those things,” said Jamal Abas, whose parents’ families both come from a small village in the Bekaa Valley, about 60 kilometres east of Beirut. 

Despite the distance, Abas says people in the village could see the blast. 

Jamal Abas says people in the village in the Bekaa Valley, where his parents’ families come from, could see the blast nearly 60 kilometres away. (Submitted by Jamal Abas)

Many people from the village have moved to Beirut, although he’s not aware of anyone from the village being injured in the explosion.

Ties to Lebanon

Aboumrad, whose father-in-law owns Baraka Pita Bakery on Main Street, says Lebanese communities in cities across Canada are beginning to organize relief efforts. 

Many Lebanese people living in Canada still have ties to the country even after being here for generations, said Abas, who has two aunts, two uncles and about 20 cousins living in the country.

That makes the pain of what the country is going through even more difficult.

“One of the hardest things … is the overflow in the hospitals and the amount of support that the country is going to need from the greater community outside of Lebanon to get back on its feet,” said Abas.

An injured man is treated after a large explosion on Tuesday in Beirut. (Daniel Carde/Getty Images)

That support has started to come in, said El Tassi.

“We’ve got a lot of people phoning and emailing and texting and saying, ‘So sorry about what’s happening’ and ‘what can we do? How can we help?'” he said.

“So the whole world in there is pulling together to help that tiny country of ours.”

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