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‘I feel helpless.’ Local Lebanese students stunned by Beirut blast

Some scramble to stay into touch with family. Others work to raise funds. USF reaches out to help.

Within seconds of Tuesday’s massive explosion in Beirut, Elissa Bitar knew something was wrong.

Bitar, a business management student at the University of South Florida who was born in Lebanon, began receiving WhatsApp messages in a family group chat. Relatives there said they were okay.

Then she saw the videos. The massive blast at the Port of Beirut left at least 157 dead and 5,000 injured, with an estimated 300,000 displaced and temporarily homeless.

Bitar was supposed to visit this summer, but the coronavirus crisis cancelled her trip. Since Tuesday, she’s been glued to her phone.

Elissa Bitar [ Courtesy of Elissa Bitar ]

“It’s even harder being away,” Bitar said. “I feel helpless. All I can do is watch, watch, watch. I just want to know what’s happening there every minute. ... I just want to stay connected.”

With the uncertainty of the pandemic looming, Bitar and other students separated from loved ones in Lebanon said this week they don’t know when they’ll be able to visit next.

When Dana Cherri, a USF doctoral student in audiology, heard the news, she called her family. They were okay physically, though their home had some damage, she said.

She’s grateful for that, she said, but her heart broke for the country she calls home, which was already facing a severe economic crisis. Lebanon has a 25 percent unemployment rate and banks have been running out of money since last year when the value of the currency dipped by 80 percent, pushing millions into poverty.

“People were trying to get back on their feet,” Cherri said. “You never know what could happen tomorrow.”

Cherri spent the first 20 years of her life in Lebanon and went to school and college in Beirut. She lived through the explosion that killed the prime minister in 2005, the war between the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah in 2006, and the blasts between 2013 and 2016 during the Syrian Civil War. Living with that fear became normal, she said.

“It sounds funny to say, but after a while, you get used to (bad news),” she said. “My heart wouldn’t stop anymore when you hear there’s been an explosion. ... But this one (on Tuesday) was bigger than anything.”

Being separated from her parents and siblings now makes things more difficult.

“It’s harder knowing you’re unable to do anything,” she said. “It really just kills you more. There’s nothing you can do right now other than be on the phone.”

Helene Kassouf, a doctoral student in environmental engineering who worked in Beirut before she came to Tampa about five years ago, said her family lives about an hour away from where the explosions took place, but her sister used to work in the area and her dad still took weekly trips there.

She remembered the fear her family lived with during war times.

“We were so scared to go anywhere,” she said. “But it had never been this bad.”

Kassouf is the only member of her family in the U.S. When she heard her relatives were safe, she was relieved but wished she could do more. Beirut has been devastated and she doesn’t know when she’ll be able to see them again.

“They’re going through a lot of stuff already as a country,” she said. “I can see my people suffering, and I’m away and I can’t do anything. ... It’s impossible to go back now.”

Helene Kassouf. [Photo courtesy of Helene Kassouf]

Louis Ilbry, a business management student at St. Leo University, sought asylum in the U.S. with his immediate family in 2006 during the war. He was 6 when he left, but clearly remembers seeing a missile strike a truck in his hometown of Zahlé.

“Everyone there really has a hard soul,” he said. “We’ve been suffering since (the Civil War). We haven’t had time to take a breather. It’s been one tragedy after another.”

Ilbry’s immediate family is in the U.S. now, but most of his extended family and friends are still in Lebanon. He said the bedridden grandmother of one of his friends was killed when something flew threw her window after the blast. Two of his father’s friends are still unaccounted for.

Louis Ilbry. [Photo courtesy of Louis Ilbry]

He worries whether the Lebanese people will ever see relief and whether government corruption will interfere. He encourages people who are donating to make sure they are doing so through vetted nongovernmental agencies.

“Everyone who’s less than a millionaire there really needs help now,” he said.

USF World, the university’s international services department, posted a link to donate to the Lebanese Red Cross on it’s Instagram page. The university had six international students from Lebanon enrolled during the summer and asked anyone impacted to contact the their Office of International Services if they need support. The school has made contact with some of the students.

Noor Kantar, president of the Arab Student Association at USF, said much of her extended family is in Lebanon. They live miles away from Beirut, but still, she said their windows were shattered and walls are cracking.

Kantar started a fundraiser selling $5 silicone bracelets that say “Lebanon Strong” on them through a website she created. All money collected will go to the Lebanese Red Cross and the Food Bank, she said, two non-governmental organizations doing relief work. She will ship to anywhere in the U.S., she said.

Bitar, who said she has been calling her family in Lebanon through WhatsApp every few hours, said it’s difficult to stay hopeful right now, but is trying. Her friends in Lebanon are helping with clean-up and search efforts. She wishes she could help too, but is trying to stay grateful.

“There’s a lot going on for everyone, especially this year,” she said. “It can only go up from here, right? It’s going to get better at some point.”