Composite of images taken at a protest organized by the Beirut Port Explosion Victims' Families and the Lebanese Union for People with Physical Disabilities to demand justice for people killed and injured by the blast. Sylvana Lakkis, president of the union, is the center of the image. Photos taken on July 4, 2021, by Hussein Baydoun. (The Public Source)

Composite of images taken at a protest organized by the Beirut Port Explosion Victims' Families and the Lebanese Union for People with Physical Disabilities to demand justice for people killed and injured by the blast. Sylvana Lakkis, president of the union, is the center of the image. Photos taken on July 4, 2021, by Hussein Baydoun. (The Public Source)

"And What Would You Like Me to Do About It?”: How the Lebanese Government Disabled Hundreds of People — and Then Left Them to Pay for Its Crime

Editor’s note: Within the disability community, some people prefer to identify themselves using “identity-first” language such as “disabled person.” Others prefer “people-first” language such as “people with disabilities.” The Public Source encountered both preferences in reporting this story. We deferred to the people we interviewed when they expressed a preference.



Something about it “just looked wrong.”

Mirna Habbouche was driving along the Charles Helou highway, near the Port of Beirut, on her way to buy milk for her one-year-old son. When she saw fireworks crackling out of the port, her instinct told her to protect him with her body: she stopped the car and pulled him out of his car seat and onto her lap. But just as she was about to turn her car around and zoom off in the other direction, the explosion ripped out of the port, across Beirut, and into her life. 

Mirna’s quick reflexes probably saved her son Chris. She was about 500 meters away from Hangar 12, where 2,750 tons of explosive ammonium nitrate had lain abandoned for over half a decade. The pressure from the explosion flung her car about 50 meters, against the concrete island between the roads, and blew her car door open. 

Chris was covered in blood “from top to bottom” — but he was still on her lap, sheltered safely between her knees. That was all that mattered.

She grabbed Chris and started running, with him in her arms, through the cloud of dust. 

“I can still hear people’s voices calling out for help in my head,” said Mirna, an exhausted-looking 36-year-old accountant who struggled to control her frustration. “But I couldn't do anything for them. My only thought was to run with my son."

Mirna’s neighbor, Elie Khoury, a 45-year-old Lebanese Army officer, was jogging by the port when the blast went off. He knew Mirna was running errands in that area. He ran to find her. 

“Chris is dead!” she sobbed, when she saw Elie. 

“No, Chris is fine, he’s fine,” he said, taking the boy from her arms. 

“Elie, your eye!” she said to him.

Mirna, YOUR eye!” he said back to her.

That was the moment they realized they had each lost an eye.

Mirna Habbouche’s neighbor, Elie, carries her son Chris at Mirna’s home. Karantina, Beirut. May 3, 2021. (Rola Khayyat/The Public Source)

Mirna Habbouche’s neighbor, Elie, carries her son Chris at Mirna’s home. Karantina, Beirut. May 3, 2021. (Rola Khayyat/The Public Source)

Mirna, 36, in her Karantina home; her phone displays a photo of her in the hospital after the blast. She and her neighbor Elie each lost an eye to the explosion. Karantina, Beirut. May 3, 2021. (Rola Khayyat/The Public Source)

Mirna, 36, in her Karantina home; her phone displays a photo of her in the hospital after the blast. She and her neighbor Elie each lost an eye to the explosion. Karantina, Beirut. May 3, 2021. (Rola Khayyat/The Public Source)

At the Civil Defense station in Karantina, a motorcyclist offered them a ride. Elie hopped on behind, still cradling Chris. “I’m going to Mar Youssef Hospital,” he shouted. “Follow me!” 

“Go!” shouted Mirna. 

She took off running on bloody legs. A bone was sticking out of her right arm. People were pointing at her and saying: “Yi, poor thing, look at her eye!” But all she could think about was Chris.

When she saw a car with no doors — they had blown off in the blast — she got in without waiting to be asked. “All I want,” she said to the young man driving the car, “is for you to take me to Mar Youssef Hospital.” 

Inside the emergency room, she wouldn’t let anyone come near her. She circled and circled, frantically searching for Chris among all the injured bodies, for a grueling 25 minutes. 

“Please, cover your eye,” said a nurse, finally. “People are getting scared of you.” The nurse held her hand and helped her find Elie and her son

Later, she realized she had been walking right past them the whole time. "The funny and devastating thing about that was that Chris was on my right,” she said, “but I couldn’t see him."

What Is This Big Lie We Are Living In Lebanon?

The Beirut Blast of August 4, 2020 was one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions in history. It killed over 250 people, injured over 6,500, and left an unknown number of people — despite several information requests from The Public Source, the government failed to disclose any official number — disabled in some way.

Rona Dbeissi, project manager at the Lebanese Union for People with Physical Disabilities (LUPD), told The Public Source that the blast left several hundred people with permanent disabilities, and hundreds more — perhaps as many as 1,000 — with disabilities that may or may not turn out to be temporary. But Dbeissi cautioned that the LUPD had not been able to reach everyone. “There are between 300 and 400 people who have permanent disabilities that we are sure about,” said Dbeissi. “But there are some people for whom we don’t know what their condition will be in the future.”

Sylvana Lakkis, president of the LUPD, told The Public Source that based on field visits, communications with hospitals, and Red Cross data, the blast left at least 800 to 1000 people with disabilities of some kind. “Maybe the number is higher,” Lakkis said with a sigh. “But this is the number we have.”

The night of the blast, as Mirna lay on the operating table, caretaker Health Minister Hamad Hassan made an announcement: Lebanon’s Health Ministry would cover healthcare costs for anyone who went to the hospital that day.

But many of the people injured in the blast would need months, if not years, of follow-up treatment: hospital visits, surgeries, medical testing and physical rehabilitation. Over the next month, as pressure mounted from a furious public, the government promised to pay for it all.

Yet today, one year after the blast, Mirna and hundreds like her are still fighting to cover their medical costs. The Public Source talked to six people who were wounded or disabled by the blast, as well as to their friends and loved ones. We found that after paying for some initial treatments, Lebanon’s government has all but abandoned its commitment to the people with disabilities from the blast, forcing them to pay mounting medical bills amid one of the world's worst economic meltdowns in 170 years.

Today, after the trauma of surviving the blast, they are still adjusting to the new reality of their altered bodies. Most of them lost their homes, livelihoods, and everything they own. At the same time, they are struggling to pay for desperately needed medical care — even as many of them have lost work as a result of the blast. 

“There are many people who are still struggling and facing near death because they couldn’t finish their treatment and/or surgery,” said Lakkis. “I’m not exaggerating: The situation is extremely bad — really, really bad.”

To add insult to injury, the government’s outdated and inconsistently enforced laws are excluding many of those disabled by the blast from being legally designated as disabled: in other words, forcing them to fight for the right to join a group of people whose rights that same government has neglected and denied for over two decades. “It’s not my fault that I was there, at the wrong place at the wrong time, getting milk for my son, when the explosion happened,” said Mirna Habbouche. “How is it my fault?

As Lebanon’s currency lost 90 percent of its value, and inflation skyrocketed, the people disabled by the blast have spent the past year scraping together money from various sources: paying out of pocket from their plummeting savings, borrowing from friends and relatives, and scrambling to find charities who will pick up the tab — relying on help from anyone, in fact, but the political leaders whose negligence and systemic corruption led to their injuries in the first place.

Under Law 196, passed in December 2020, people killed in the blast are designated “army martyrs,” which means that their families are entitled to monthly payments of a little over one million L.L. — not much, given the free fall of Lebanon’s national currency, but better than nothing. Lakkis and others believe that people with disabilities from the blast should be getting a similar monthly income. “The state needs to step in,” said Lakkis. “There needs to be equity. Not just to pay back what they lost, but also offer reparations.”

“What is this big lie we are living in Lebanon?” said Hassan Yassine, acting head of the Civil Defense station in Bachoura. The station was badly damaged during the blast, and one of Yassin’s colleagues was injured so badly his leg had to be amputated. “Our whole lives have been destroyed, and now they are even making us disabled. The least the state should do is to look at those who became injured due to the blast.”

Lebanon’s government has all but abandoned its commitment to the people with disabilities from the blast, forcing them to pay mounting medical bills amid one of the world's worst economic meltdowns in 170 years.

And What Would You Like Me To Do About It?

Mirna spent four hours in the operating room that night. After he removed glass and shrapnel from her eye, and stitched up her arm, the doctor managed to reconstruct the shape of Mirna’s right eye. But she will probably never see from it again: she lost 40 percent of her retina, and the eye no longer has a lens, a cornea, or the muscles needed to hold it in place. 

The next day, a representative from the Health Ministry came to the hospital to take down the names of the wounded. When she told him that she and Elie had each lost an eye, his response filled her with rage. "He had the audacity to respond by dismissively saying, 'and what would you like me to do about it?’'' she said. “I told him that, at the very least, he could have said al-hamdillah as-salamah."

Under the Health Ministry’s August 4th announcement, anyone who was injured by the blast paid nothing for the immediate post-blast hospital visit. The hospitals treated patients for free, and the ministry compensated the hospitals directly. 

But Mirna and hundreds of others would need months, if not years, of medical care — far more than just one visit. Throughout August, the Committee of the Port Blast Victims’ Families protested and called for expanding government healthcare coverage. 

On September 4, 2020, Hamad Hassan, the caretaker Health Minister, issued a circular that seemed to answer their demands: it promised the ministry would cover medical costs for those wounded in the port explosion. 

The circular required all the hospitals that treated people injured by the blast to submit their names and contact information to the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH). It promised to cover the costs of immediate treatment, as well as follow-up hospital visits, surgeries, and medical tests. It also stated that the wounded “must be followed up with after a period of time” for subsequent medical care. 

But in December, the government passed Law 196, a fatally vague and contradictory law that superseded both of the Health Ministry’s circulars and walked back the government’s commitment to care for all of those injured in the blast. 

On paper, Law 196 does two things: it registered people who were “completely or partially disabled” by the blast in Lebanon’s withering, employer-funded National Social Security Fund (NSSF), an independent public institution that was set up to provide insurance and social protection for the public. And it gave them all the “aid, rights and exemptions” enshrined in Lebanon’s Law 220, passed in 2000, which governs the rights of people with disabilities. 

While that may sound good on paper, Law 196 has at least three major problems. The first is that the Lebanese government has systematically failed to deliver almost all of the “aid, rights, and exemptions” that it promised disabled people over two decades ago. 

The second is that one of the “rights” Law 220 guarantees disabled people is full and direct health insurance from the Ministry of Public Health. But by enrolling them in the bankrupt NSSF instead, the government appears to be creating an inferior standard of care for those disabled by the blast — as well as depriving them of one of the rights that Law 220 supposedly guarantees. 

This contradiction allows both agencies to shift responsibility to the other — leaving many people with no coverage at all. “The Health Ministry will tell you ‘the NSSF should cover you,’ while the NSSF will tell you ‘The Health Ministry should cover you,’” said Youmna Makhlouf, a lawyer and researcher at the nonprofit research and advocacy organization Legal Agenda, who co-authored a legal guide to help the blast’s survivors in seeking justice and compensation. “This is what is happening on the ground.”

The third issue is that Law 196 is leaving hundreds of people out in the cold: those who do not meet the Lebanese government’s restrictive and outdated definition of disability. By limiting its coverage only to those who meet its out-of-date definition — and not to all the people who were disabled by the blast, and require ongoing medical care — Law 196 gave hospitals and government officials the perfect bureaucratic excuse for refusing to cover their care. 

And that is exactly what happened to Mirna Habbouche.

“The Health Ministry will tell you ‘the NSSF should cover you,’ while the NSSF will tell you ‘The Health Ministry should cover you.’ This is what is happening on the ground.”

The Eyes Are Everything

Mirna and Elie are not the only ones who lost an eye in the blast: according to data compiled by Beirut hospitals shortly after the blast, at least 400 people had eye injuries, more than 50 needed surgery, and at least 15 were left permanently blind in one eye.

But while Mirna and Elie are struggling to function with one eye, the Lebanese government does not consider them — or, presumably, any of the others who lost one eye in the blast — to be legally disabled. That’s because, as human rights groups have long pointed out, Lebanon’s authorities are using obsolete medical standards to define who is disabled and who is not — and, as a result, systematically undercounting the number of people with disabilities in Lebanon. 

Over the past few decades, the international human rights community has shifted from a so-called “medical” definition of disability toward a “social” one. The medical model measured an individual’s level of “impairment” — an antiquated and stigmatizing term — that limits their ability to participate in everyday activities. 

The social model, by contrast, looks at how people with disabilities function in their social environment. It gauges their level of comfort or difficulty in performing social roles, like standing or staring at a screen for long periods of time. Where the medical model might see a person in a wheelchair as unable to enter a building, the social model might see the building as unable to accommodate the person in a wheelchair. “Disability is a lie created by humans,” said Lakkis, “and we focus on how disabled people are deliberately marginalized.”

But while most of the world has adopted the social definition of disability, Lebanon has lagged behind. Today it is one of 32 countries (including the United States) that have yet to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). In 2013, UNESCO found that the state’s Central Administration for Statistics had no official data on the number of persons with disabilities in Lebanon. 

By 2016, the Ministry of Social Affairs had only registered about 98,000 people with disabilities, representing roughly 3 percent of the total population. Public health experts believe that Lebanon’s true rate of people with disabilities is probably much higher — at least 10 to 15 percent, given the history of war and conflict and the presence of land mines and submunitions. 

That same year, the United Nations Economic and Social Council called on Lebanon to bring the definition of disability in Law 220 “into conformity with international standards.” But Lebanon never updated Law 220; and to this day, Article 3 of Law 220 stipulates an outdated medical standard that goes back to 1980. 

Lebanon’s antiquated legal standard has real repercussions for people like Mirna. A month or so after the blast, Mirna called Lebanon’s Ministry of Social Affairs to get a disability card. “They told me that, for them, the eye is not considered a disability,” she said, “although for me, the eyes are everything. I asked them: ‘What is considered a disability? Is it just the arms or legs?’ I told them that the eyes are perhaps the most important.”

Lebanon’s authorities are using obsolete medical standards — and systematically undercounting the number of people with disabilities in Lebanon.

Law 220: Who Do They Think They're Kidding?”

On May 5, 1983, when he was 13 years old, Viken Tchaparian lost his left leg to a mortar shell during the Lebanese civil war. Today, he’s a sarcastic, high-spirited photographer who runs his own news and entertainment website. The day of the blast, Viken was in Martyrs' Square. When he heard something was happening at the port, he rushed to cover it for his website. “Photographers always have to rush to the scene to be the first ones there, know what’s happening, and take good photos,” he told The Public Source. “So I arrived, and I sure wish I didn’t!”

Tchaparian is one of the “lucky” ones: unlike Mirna, he has an official disability card, granting him all the rights covered under Law 220. And yet it took almost a year for him to get a replacement for his prosthetic leg, which was broken by the blast, from an INGO that is helping people with disabilities. Except for a few minor tax exemptions — amounting to about 100,000 L.L. a year, currently less than $10 — Tchaparian’s card hasn’t done much. “Isn’t it a treasure?” he told The Public Source, laughing. “It sits in my wallet. It’s practically décor.”

“The best part is: they tell us if you get a car from outside, you benefit from customs exemption,” he said, referring to a loophole that Lebanon’s political class commonly exploits in order to import luxury cars without paying taxes. “But how can I afford to buy a car from abroad? Who do they think they're kidding?” 

Viken Tchaparian walking around the ruins of the Port of Beirut. May 2021. (Feryal Nehme/The Public Source)

Viken Tchaparian walking around the ruins of the Port of Beirut. May 2021. (Feryal Nehme/The Public Source)

 

 

On paper, Law 220 describes a parallel Lebanon, where people with disabilities are guaranteed a full array of rights and benefits: wheelchair ramps for accessing public buildings and touristic sites; reserved parking spots; full health insurance from the Ministry of Public Health; inclusive education; employment quotas in the public and private sectors; and the right to apply for housing loans without being discriminated against. To get these rights, they register through the Social Affairs Ministry, which issues them the disability card. 

But in the real Lebanon, the government was failing disabled people long before the blast. The government has never allocated enough money in state budgets to guarantee the rights spelled out in Law 220. And many ministries never passed implementation decrees (مراسيم تطبيقية) for the law’s provisions to go into effect. “It is a very good law, but the problem is the lack of implementation decrees,” said Nadim Abdo, program manager at Arc en Ciel, a non-governmental organization that worked on Law 220 back in 2000. “We need to pressure the ministries to pass the implementation decrees.”

Under Law 220, schools are required to be fully accessible to students with disabilities. Yet in 2017, Human Rights Watch found that thousands of children with disabilities were being denied the right to education. School officials told one mother they couldn’t take her son, a 10-year-old boy with autism, “because the other parents might not approve.” The LUPD found that only five of Lebanon’s 997 public schools met the law’s requirements for accessibility. One school had a wheelchair-accessible bathroom — on the second floor, which was not accessible by wheelchair. A nine-year-old boy who used a wheelchair had to wear diapers, because he could not use the supposedly “accessible” bathroom, and his mother had to come to the school and change them every day. Not surprisingly, a 2004 survey found that only eight percent of people with disabilities were able to finish secondary or tertiary education — a quarter of the rate for the general population. 

Today, that longstanding historical neglect will affect the children who were disabled by the blast. “Around 20 children became people with disabilities because of the explosion,” said Lakkis. “They have the right to go back to school. Will the schools be able to accommodate them?”

Lebanon’s lack of inclusive infrastructure, as well as outdated ableist mentalities, combine to make persons with disabilities largely invisible. “When people don’t see persons with disabilities on a regular basis, or maybe they don’t see a disabled person for months or years on end, [disability rights] becomes a marginal thought,” said Samee Sulaiman, a doctoral student in anthropology at Brown University who has been conducting research on the disability rights movement in Lebanon.

“In our society, in the Arab world, many people don’t think of people with disabilities as people with rights,” said Lakkis, “and instead see them as sick people who need medical treatment. They don’t think about inclusion.” 

For people with disabilities, this attitude shows up in a multitude of ways: when asked whether his card had been of any use, Tchaparian recalled that until two years ago, hospitals would put him in the women’s line for entry to treatment. 

“But even the women’s lines, with all due respect,” he joked, “their line is really long.” In any case, he noted wryly, that policy was canceled two years ago. 

Around the same time, in July 2019, then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri presented a draft law to change the wording of Law 220. Instead of making the most important reforms — changing the obsolete medical definition of disability to a social one — Lebanon’s lawmakers decided to replace the term “disabled” with the phrase “special needs,” a euphemism that many people with disabilities describe as offensive

Sylvana Lakkis, president of the LUPD, sent a letter to Parliament objecting to the phrase “special needs.” Parliament should implement Law 220 before changing the terminology, she told the Lebanese online newspaper al-Modon, pointing out that “the law is still just ink on paper.” 

Lawmakers ignored the LUPD’s letter. In May 2020, they passed Law 171, changing the phrase “disabled” to “additional needs.”

“Less Than Zero”

Mohammad Ali was getting into his car in Karantina when he heard the first explosion. Like Mirna, he tried to drive away. But then something came down on him, crushing his leg, and he passed out. He dimly recalls someone talking to him and slapping his face to keep him conscious. “That’s all I can remember, to be honest,” he said. “The whole thing was so cloudy and I could only see white.”

Today, Mohammad Ali has a metal rod and screws attached to his damaged leg and uses a wheelchair to get around. He needs two to three years of intensive physiotherapy. But that will cost him somewhere between L.L. 800,000 and 1,200,000 a month—more than twice the monthly minimum wage. And that is money he does not have. 

Mohammad Ali makes mouneh — traditional Lebanese preserved foods — for a living. With his mother, sister, and four employees, the 31-year-old entrepreneur works at a family-owned micro-business called Linda’s LB Food. His voice beams with pride when he describes all the foods they make: rosewater, verjuice, sumac, keshek, pickled lemons and pickled green tomatoes, makdous stuffed with nuts, apple vinegar, and dried tomatoes — “I love these!” he said. “You really feel the spirit of the earth when you work with these. My heart fills with joy when I make them.”

Before the blast, they were producing around $5,000 worth of mouneh a month. Mohammad Ali had filled out the paperwork to register their company so they could start exporting their products to Europe. They made everything with glass, avoiding plastic “because it can cause cancerous reactions.” But when the explosion happened, it shattered everything: the glass jars of pickles and olives, their workspace, their house, his car. Worst of all: the distiller that they used to make essential oils.

Mohammad Ali at the Lebanese University, where he studies law and social sciences and enjoys walks in the campus' nature. Hadath, outskirts of Beirut. July 27, 2021. (Rita Kabalan/The Public Source)

Mohammad Ali at the Lebanese University, where he studies law and social sciences and enjoys walks in the campus' nature. Hadath, outskirts of Beirut. July 27, 2021. (Rita Kabalan/The Public Source)

Mohammad Ali with packaged food for his moune business at home in Hadath, where his family moved after the blast destroyed their home. Hadath, outskirts of Beirut. July 27, 2021. (Rita Kabalan/The Public Source)

Mohammad Ali with packaged food for his moune business at home in Hadath, where his family moved after the blast destroyed their home. Hadath, outskirts of Beirut. July 27, 2021. (Rita Kabalan/The Public Source)

 

 

Now, working in his kitchen with rudimentary tools, they’re making much less than before. The dreams of exporting to Europe are on hold. “I’m not back to zero,” said Mohammad Ali. “I’m less than zero.” Many of those The Public Source interviewed used the same phrase.

What gets him is the waste. Every day, people throw out orange and lemon peels that he could be turning into attar that sells for $3,000 a liter. “We can produce very valuable products, export them, and raise Lebanon’s reputation around the world,” he said. “Even if I have a disability, I can get through it, if I have my equipment and can get back to work! Work would help a lot. It would make me forget about the pain.”

But because Lebanon’s government failed to cover Mohammad Ali’s medical care, any money he can borrow will go to paying off medical bills instead of replacing equipment destroyed by the blast. So far he’s had to pay about 28 million liras — over 40 times the monthly minimum wage — just for physical treatment alone. 

Even by Lebanon’s outdated standard, Mohammad Ali is eligible for a disability card. But when he went to the Ministry of Social Affairs, on crutches, carrying all of his X-rays and hospital reports, they told him he had to go to the office “where he lived” — even though his home had been destroyed in the blast. 

He told them it was painful for him to travel to multiple offices, and that he didn’t even know where he was going to live. “I was standing in front of them, with my injury obvious for everyone to see,” he said. “I told them ‘I’m right here in the ministry, and with all my papers, can’t you give me the disability card right now?’ They said no. It’s like we're gaslighting ourselves. It’s really heartbreaking.”

Despite his injuries, which cause him considerable pain — by late May, he still couldn’t walk more than a few meters without feeling pain in his back and leg — Mohammad Ali went three times to the Ministry of Social Affairs office trying to get his card. The first two times, they were closed. The third time, they turned him away. 

Finally the Ministry called him back: they had a wheelchair he could borrow. But even though they knew he used a wheelchair, they still didn’t have his disability card. “I shouldn’t be the one running after this disability card!” he said. “Imagine someone demanding the most basic rights: the right to work.”

Under Law 220, Lebanon’s National Employment Office (NEO), in coordination with the Ministry of Vocational and Technical Education, is supposed to help people with disabilities enter the workforce. In the real Lebanon, NEO is one of the country’s most neglected and marginalized state institutions. The Ministry of Vocational and Technical Education has been dissolved. Unsurprisingly, UNESCO’s 2016 periodic report found that 80 percent of people with disabilities were not or had never been employed. 

“Unemployment was already very high among people with disabilities,” said Lakkis. “Now with the economic collapse, the people with disabilities are the first to lose their jobs. So we need to think about how to provide unemployed people with disabilities with social protections.”

When Mohammad Ali went to the Ministry of Social Affairs, on crutches, they told him he had to go to the office “where he lived” — even though his home was destroyed in the blast.

For Mohammad Ali, a monthly income would make all the difference. “We’re not making giant demands,” he said, “just our rights: access to healthcare, to be able to continue living normally and continue my university education. This is the bare minimum.”

He imagines living with his disability in a country where the state would fulfill his basic rights, and he could work instead of having to rely on charity. “The state would feel proud of you,” he said. “Despite the disability, you are producing something valuable, something even non-disabled people can’t do.”

“These Are Huge Gaps”

Before the blast, Abdel Rahman “Abed” Shebnaty ran a small stand next to the Bashoura Civil Defense station, selling coffee and juice to passersby. He has been a volunteer in the Civil Defense since the July 2006 war. On August 4, his friends in the Civil Defense called down to him from the window: “Close up your stand and come on up! There’s a big fire at the port.” 

He ran upstairs to join his friends. The next thing he knew, all the windows blew out, and he was on the floor, covered with blood. “I didn’t feel that I was injured,” he said. “I just felt lost.”

His friends carried him to the Beirut government hospital. As hospital staff stitched up his leg in a makeshift bed outside the packed hospital, he kept insisting that he wanted to go back to the port and help. “Brother, your leg is all stitched up,” said his friend Hassan Yassine. “You need to rest it.” 

Abdel Rahman “Abed” Shebnaty’s phone displays a picture of himself in full firefighter gear before the Beirut Blast. Bachoura, Beirut. April 29, 2021. (Rola Khayyat/The Public Source)

Abdel Rahman “Abed” Shebnaty’s phone displays a picture of himself in full firefighter gear before the Beirut Blast. Bachoura, Beirut. April 29, 2021. (Rola Khayyat/The Public Source)

 

 

Abdel Rahman “Abed” Shebnaty in uniform at the Bachoura Civil Defense Station, where he has been a volunteer since the July 2006 war. Bachoura, Beirut. April 29, 2021. (Rola Khayyat/The Public Source)

Abdel Rahman “Abed” Shebnaty in uniform at the Bachoura Civil Defense Station, where he has been a volunteer since the July 2006 war. Bachoura, Beirut. April 29, 2021. (Rola Khayyat/The Public Source)

Abed rested for a day or two, then went down to help with the cleanup and rescue. But his injured leg got worse and worse. Eventually it had to be amputated. His friends from the Civil Defense helped him with everything: they carried him to the bathroom. They called the Red Cross to get him a prosthetic leg. And they helped him get a disability card. 

Thanks to his friends, and their relentless advocacy, Lebanon’s Ministry of Public Health paid for most of Abed’s hospital expenses. But most of what he uses every day — a wheelchair, a special toilet seat, even a refrigerator — came from charities and NGOs like the Red Cross and LUPD. “There are some charities that I will never forget,” said his friend Hassan. “They really helped us and stood by our side in these difficult times.”

Nadim Abdo of Arc en Ciel told The Public Source that many wounded by the Beirut Port blast reached out to them for assistance. They tried to provide medication, wheelchairs, crutches, and even at times food and clothes packages to those in need. “But of course we couldn’t help everyone,” Abdo said. “The majority went to hospitals.” 

Immediately after the explosion, hundreds of charities and volunteers rushed to the scene to help. But charity cannot substitute for a functioning state: in the absence of any central coordination, some people got two or three times more aid than they needed. Others received none at all. And the crucial support that comes from charity is temporary. “The reality is that there are non-governmental organizations like us and others trying to help, but we cannot fill all the gaps,” Lakkis said. “These are huge gaps.”

Both Abed and Mohammad Ali stressed that a monthly income would help them live independently. ​​“When I am looking for a job and I beg for donations, I will always feel pain and just miserable,” Mohammad Ali told The Public Source. “You feel this big burden on your life, and you feel like you are a big burden on society.”

“Now They’ll Be Coming To Help Us”

Mariam Yayeghian’s son and her 74-year-old husband, Nazareth Manissalian, both lost most of their hearing in the blast. Their home was destroyed. Her son also sustained severe head and back injuries. But for the Manissalian family, the invisible traumas — of neglect, stigmatization, and shame — have added another layer of disability. 

“Trauma can be incredibly disabling,” said Samee Sulaiman, the doctoral researcher. “Anxiety will prevent you from going outside because you’re afraid of loud noises or so. Depression will keep you immobilized and you can’t get out of bed.”

Mariam and Nazareth Yayeghian in the doorway of their home in Mar Mikhael, Beirut. July 23, 2021. (Rita Kabalan/The Public Source)

Mariam and Nazareth Manissalian in the doorway of their home in Mar Mikhael, Beirut. July 23, 2021. (Rita Kabalan/The Public Source)

Arc en Ciel helped the Manissalians get a disability card for Nazareth, as well as hearing aids for him and their son. But Mariam said “no one at all” from the Lebanese government reached out to them. “At the very least they could be giving us our medication, or covering healthcare,” Mariam told The Public Source

Mariam read dozens of stories about massive shipments of humanitarian aid reaching the country. But today, she and her family are still without a fully functioning home. They don’t even have beds. 

“To this day, I still feel kind of... inebriated,” Mariam told The Public Source. “I look around in shock, in disbelief of what’s happened to us, thinking, ‘now they’ll be coming to help us.’ It’s been almost a year, and I’m still dreaming that the NGOs might still come, and continue providing aid. So that we can stand firmly on our two legs.” 

Mariam said her husband and son both have what she calls “complex psychological conditions” — in clinical terms, complex post-traumatic stress. Not only are they depressed after losing their hearing, and their home, but they fear the social stigma that people with disabilities face in Lebanon. “They isolate themselves and are extremely reserved,” said Mariam. “They don’t want to speak. They’re afraid. Ashamed.”  

The government’s neglect after the blast gave them a small, bitter taste of that stigmatization. “‘We were normal. Look what happened to us. What are people going to say about us?’” she said, quoting her husband and son. “‘Why should we speak up? There’s no use.’”

I Have To Be Strong for My Daughters

On August 4, Fatima Al Qiryani, a 38-year-old mother of two 12-year-old twins, was in Moussaitbeh, a neighborhood roughly 3 kilometers away from the port. She was cleaning the outside of the men’s clothing store where she worked when the blast threw her violently to the ground, face-first. The next time she opened her eyes was eighteen days later, in a bed at the American University of Beirut’s Medical Center. 

“The doctors told us ‘God loves you,’” said Darein Al Qiryani, Fatima’s sister. “Because if we had arrived a few minutes later, she wouldn’t have survived.”

The doctors didn’t think Fatima would ever wake up. “I kept telling them ‘she will wake up,’” said Darein. “I would force my way in and tell them ‘give me just one minute with her.’” 

During those precious minutes, Darein would get out her phone and call Fatima’s daughters. Fatima wouldn’t move, but when she heard her daughters’ voices, her eyes would fill with tears. When Fatima started to respond, by raising her hand when a doctor said to, the doctors were so surprised they started clapping. 

But when Fatima’s daughters finally saw their mother after her eighteen-day coma, they burst into tears. The impact had shattered Fatima’s skull, nose, lips, and teeth. She had no hair, her eyes were swollen, and she could barely speak. The doctors had removed a large piece of her skull and refrigerated it.

Fatima's phone displays a photo of her in the hospital. On August 4, 2020, the blast threw Fatima Al Qiryani face-first onto the pavement, fracturing her skull, damaging her face, and plunging her into a coma for 18 long days. Mar Elias, Beirut. May 6, 2021 (Rola Khayyat/The Public Source)

Fatima's phone displays a photo of her in the hospital. On August 4, 2020, the blast threw Fatima Al Qiryani face-first onto the pavement, fracturing her skull, damaging her face, and plunging her into a coma for 18 long days. Mar Elias, Beirut. May 6, 2021 (Rola Khayyat/The Public Source)

Fatima sits in her brother’s Mar Elias apartment. While her face has largely recovered after numerous surgeries, invisible wounds and trauma linger on. Mar Elias, Beirut. May 6, 2021 (Rola Khayyat/The Public Source)

Fatima sits in her brother’s Mar Elias apartment. While her face has largely recovered after numerous surgeries, invisible wounds and trauma linger on. Mar Elias, Beirut. May 6, 2021 (Rola Khayyat/The Public Source)

After many phone calls and much lobbying, the Ministry of Public Health agreed to cover most of Fatima’s major surgeries: several surgeries to repair her damaged nose and lips, and a cranioplasty to reinsert the refrigerated bone back into her skull. But she had to pay out of pocket for hospital fees, follow-up visits, and medicines — about L.L. 6 million, according to Darein, or a little over eight times the monthly minimum wage. 

Today, Fatima still needs major dental surgery in order to eat and drink like before. Even with a “huge discount” from a kind dentist, this will cost $2,500 — a sum they will have to borrow and go into debt to get. 

“There is no other choice,” said Darein. “You know how the [economic] situation is today.” 

Law 220’s outdated definition does not consider Fatima disabled. But today, a year after the blast, she still struggles with blast-induced trauma: debilitating migraines, pounding in her head, and noise intolerance that makes it difficult for her to be outside. Because of this, she hasn’t been able to go back to work. 

“Any loud noise really bothers me, and I start feeling spikes in my head,” she said, with a hint of exhaustion in her voice. “I need to sit in my own room just to be quiet from everyone and everything around me.”

She feels stressed whenever people talk about the blast. “I can’t hear about it, honestly,” she said. “Now that August 4 is coming up, I step aside. Even if I hear an ambulance siren, I close my ears and step aside. I can’t honestly. I really can’t, it's very difficult.”

A child psychologist at school is helping her daughters recover from the shock of almost losing their mother. Progress is steady, but slow: one daughter cries a lot, is “always scared,” and carries a photo of Fatima wherever she goes. The other is always worried. “They are both very afraid for me,” said Fatima. “For example, when I have a trip to Beirut, they start crying and fear that I might not come back. When they go to school, sometimes they start crying because they’re afraid they’ll never see me again.”

Law 220's outdated definition does not consider Fatima disabled. But today, a year after the blast, she still struggles with blast-induced trauma.

Fatima believes that the Prophet Muhammad’s family watched over her during her coma. “I woke up thanks to God and Ahl al-Bayt, who were with me,” she said. “They saved me, and I need to be strong for my daughters.”

“We Are Here”

Mirna was scheduled to have a cornea transplant surgery in late May. When she went to the social security office to get it covered, as is her right under the law, the employees told her that “the law is ink on paper.” After multiple trips from one office to another, the NSSF finally agreed to cover 90 percent of the surgery. That left her with a bill of L.L. 5 million, or more than seven times Lebanon’s monthly minimum wage. 

She also had to buy the new cornea herself. That cost her $2,000 in “fresh dollars” — now harder to find than ever in the Lebanese market. “Where am I supposed to get this much money?” she said. “I shouldn’t be obligated to be treating myself. Where is my state?” 

She took on a second job to cover her medical expenses and stay afloat amid Lebanon’s socioeconomic collapse. Having two jobs puts a lot of strain on her one good eye, as she has to spend long hours working on her laptop. She’s supposed to let it rest, so it can recover. “But I have no choice,” she said. “I have to work to survive.” 

Mirna looks back on a year spent ping-ponging between government offices, desperately trying to submit paperwork to cover medical treatment and replace her lost car. Today, she says she and other people with disabilities feel like “living martyrs.” 

We’re the ones who’ve been injured, and we feel pain every day,” she said. “No one is talking about us! Why? We are here, and we’re staying.