A little before 6:00 pm on August 4, 2020, a large quantity of ammonium nitrate stored at the port of Beirut caught fire. When a response team arrived at the scene, unaware of what they were really dealing with, they reported: “There’s something wrong here; there’s a crazy sound and a huge fire.”(1) A few minutes later, Beirut was devastated by one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history. At least 200 people were killed and 7000 injured, and over 300, 000 lost their homes. Moreover, this happened in the midst of an ongoing political and economic crisis, at one of the most difficult times for Lebanon since the civil war. Yet in the face of catastrophe the citizens of Beirut came together in solidarity: they volunteered en masse to clean up debris; they formed ad hoc relief organizations (Nation Station, for instance) to address the needs of affected communities; and they opened their homes to those who no longer had any.
It’s now been a year since the Beirut port explosion. On this occasion we mourn those who passed away; we stand with those who lost loved ones, lost their homes, or suffered injuries; and we celebrate the kindness, resilience, and bravery the Lebanese people have demonstrated in the face of this tragedy.
This is also the time when, as an organization, we look back at our own response to the Beirut port explosion and its aftermath. Teach For Lebanon (TFL) responded to the Beirut Blast in a number of ways. The most systematic of these is the Build Back Better (BBB) initiative. The BBB was designed with four components:
From the fourth quarter of 2020 to the first quarter of 2021, with DHL’s support, TFL distributed 1000 hygiene and stationery packs to students affected by the blast.
The School Community Support Training Program
The School Community Support Training Program (SCSTP) was designed and implemented in partnership with Nafsaniyoun to help teachers (including TFL Fellows) and other school workers identify and address mental health issues in their students. Between February 3, 2021, and March 4, 2021, over 500 teachers and administrative workers in 165 schools throughout Lebanon attended 30 hours of training sessions (led by experts in education and psychology) supplemented by five hours of personal readings and reflections.
TFL’s partnership with Nafsaniyoun also includes psychosocial support sessions for parents, students, and teachers affected by the Beirut port explosion (as well as the other crises Lebanon has been experiencing). This component of the BBB initiative is ongoing. By the end of summer 2021, we will have provided psychosocial support to over 200 beneficiaries.
Homework Support and Tutoring/Laptop Donations
Originally, the fourth component of the BBB initiative was intended to be homework support and tutoring provided to student beneficiaries by TFL Fellows and alumni. Although we reached over 70 students, we eventually opted, due to the pandemic and ensuing school closures and lockdowns, to reroute funds from this pillar of the initiative toward purchasing laptops and distributing them among schools where our Fellows serve.(2)
Another way in which TFL responded to the Beirut port explosion was by organizing a student art competition in two schools Sahaguian and Dr. Wadih El Samad. The competition launched in December 2020. For the student participants, the goal was to produce artwork on the theme of rebuilding Lebanon “with will and hope,” with an emphasis on the values of justice, transparency, and equality. The 61 student participants were free to create art, poetry, music, or videos to convey their vision of a better Lebanon. The overall aim of the competition was to give student participants an opportunity to heal, to give them space to creatively express their feelings and thoughts about everything that had happened to their country, and to reward them for that.
Finally TFL has consistently addressed the Beirut port explosion through the work of our fellows. TFL Fellows are not simply school teachers, they are community leaders. As a result, Fellows function as pillars of support for the communities they serve in. They make themselves available to meet with students, parents, and school staff to tackle any issues that might arise. On top of this, they regularly organize extracurricular activities (ECAs), both in and out of the classroom, to meet the needs of their communities. These ECAs range from collaborations with network partners, to programs designed to raise awareness of and reduce gender-based violence, to protests.
In the last year, many of our Fellow’s ECAs directly or indirectly responded to the blast. One example of this is an ECA led by our Fellows at Sahaguian college (Fatima Shahrour, Danielle Jreije, and Dany Webbeh), by which they incorporated “self-care” and “self-confidence” sessions in their daily classes. Over the course of the year, they were able to identify issues in classes they have in common. These issues varied from trauma as a result of current events all the way to depression and lack of confidence. In response, they took the initiative to organize support sessions offering a safe place for students to express their feelings and open up.
A parallel project run by the Sahaguian Fellows was designed to raise awareness about mental health issues in their school community. In order to do this, the Fellows supervised Grade 12 students as they prepared a presentation to be delivered to the Sahaguian community. This presentation revolved around the topic of mental health in relation to academic life (exams, homework, university applications, etc.). At the end of the session, the audience was presented with a set of challenges called “the 7 keys to self-love” and including items like “call an old friend” and “do something that makes you happy.” The goal of these challenges was to help the person doing them feel better both physically and mentally.
To conclude, although a year has passed, we’re still very much in the aftermath of the Beirut port explosion. Lebanon remains devastated – not only by the rippling effects of the blast, but also by crippling economic and political crises, and by the pandemic. Fortunately, these crises have made us even stronger and more resilient than we were before, and we’ve learned from them. We’ve learned, among other things, the importance of catering to the mental health of the people who work for us, as well as of our beneficiaries. Accordingly, we are beginning to brainstorm new projects in line with our partnership with Nafsaniyoun. We want to make the kind of professional development our fellows received through SCSTP an integral part of their training, and psychosocial support is something we should look to provide as consistently as possible. We look forward to the future, because in order for Lebanon to recover, our mission is more important than ever. If we want a better Lebanon, we have to raise the generation of leaders who will build it anew, and we have to do so now.
(2) We have incidentally just launched a campaign to raise additional funding for this project. If you are interested in supporting that cause, you can do so here.