Lebanese students mourn Beirut explosion from Austin, find ways to cope

Jennifer Errico

Celine Farhat was finishing a physics lab in her bedroom in Houston when she heard sobs and prayers from downstairs. 

 “I knew in my heart something bad, something terrible, had happened,” mechanical engineering sophomore Farhat said. “It was like time stood still.”

 Farhat’s parents had just been told over a FaceTime call with her uncle in Lebanon that rubble had collapsed on top of her grandmother, taking her life.

 Farhat’s grandmother was one of the 220 people killed in the explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, on Aug. 4.

For six years, about 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate were unsafely stored in a warehouse in Beirut. BBC reports this as the cause of the explosion. The blast was felt 150 miles from Lebanon, and it damaged residential areas, essential ports and buildings that provided local food storage. 

Now Farhat and other UT students with ties to Lebanon are getting involved with relief efforts as they mourn the tragedy from Texas.

Even before the explosion, Zaynab Noormohamed, an international relations and global studies sophomore who has family in the country, said Lebanon was in an economic crisis. It escalated in October 2019 because of increased government corruption and economic mismanagement, the Washington Post reported. In July, the Lebanese pound lost 60% of its value leading to price inflation. 

 “There was a point where (my aunt) was paying 40 American dollars for a pack of strawberries,” Noormohamed said.


 The coronavirus pandemic has also caused a supply shortage for Lebanese hospitals to treat the thousands of injured victims from the explosion. 

 Noormohamed’s cousin, aunt and uncle were in their home 1.5 miles away from the warehouse when the explosion occurred, injuring her four-year-old cousin.

 “(My cousin) had cuts in her leg from broken glass so deep you could see bone. She needed immediate surgery,” Noormohamed said. “The hospitals ran out of anesthesia though, so my cousin took a Tylenol.”

 Thousands of miles away in Texas, Farhat said she feels limited in her ability to help the relief effort.

 However, she has since gotten involved in the Lebanese Cultural Organization, which focuses on connecting UT students with ties to Lebanon. They have fundraised $7,120 through GoFundMe and an anonymous benefactor agreed to match the donations up to $10,000. The money will be donated to the Lebanese Red Cross and Beit El Baraka, a nonprofit that collects necessary medical supplies for hospitals.

 Economics senior Yara El Hayek is president of the Lebanese Cultural Organization and on Aug. 8, El Hayek organized a candlelight service with around 50 people in front of the Texas Capitol. The candles spelled Beirut in English and Arabic.

 “We all lit the candles together and had a moment of silence,” El Hayek said. “We united together as a community to mourn our loss.”

To raise money for the Lebanese Food Bank, El Hayek and nine of her cousins started selling homemade candles and bracelets over Instagram on a donation basis. Their parents have agreed to match their total donations and they’ve already raised over $3,000.  

“In the beginning every single fiber of my being was screaming for me to be back in Lebanon,” El Hayek said. “I felt so useless. I’m over here making bracelets and candles while people are on the streets literally digging up rubble to find missing people. But even if this is all I can do, at least it’s something.”

 Farhat, El Hayek and Noormohamed said others can help by raising awareness and donating to nonprofit organizations not associated with the government, such as the Lebanese Red Cross, because it’s unclear the government will utilize the money to help the Lebanese people.

“(The Lebanese people) have nicknamed Beirut ‘the phoenix’ because the city has been destroyed and rebuilt seven times before this,”  El Hayek said. “And we will rise again.”