An update from North Lebanon in the wake of the coronavirus threat

In this solidarity we see hope

By Ahlam Chalabi

Ahlam is Anera’s area manager for North Lebanon.

Lebanon has been in a crisis since October. Since coronavirus arrived here, things are even harder. The situation is really heavy. Day workers and the vulnerable are suffering the most. But difficult circumstances also bring out people doing good work. We’re seeing a lot of solidarity and resilience.

As in many other countries, people in Lebanon are being told to stay home whenever possible. I have been working from home for two weeks and, like everyone else, struggling to juggle everything. I need to keep an eye on my kids, who are now doing online education through their school, and still get work done despite the distractions.

Yesterday we had a staff meeting with all of Anera Lebanon’s staff, discussing the situation in each area in the weeks since COVID-19 shut down the country. One of the things that has been really striking is how much people are supporting each other.

Community solidarity is strong. It’s really impressive to see what is happening across the country. There are many initiatives coming not just from NGOs but also from individuals. There are lots of people asking how they can help, offering to volunteer or donate to help others.

Especially in the camps — Beddawi and Nahr El Bared here in the north — people feel responsible for each other. This is true elsewhere too but because the communities in the camps are smaller and more defined than in a city like Tripoli, it is particularly noticeable.

Beddawi Palestinian refugee camp, Tripoli, Lebanon.

For Lebanese people, these difficulties we’re living through now are shocking. In some ways, refugees have become inured to these hardships and are more prepared. For instance, a Syrian family I know had been doing and making everything at home for years already. They make much of their food, like labneh, at home. Syrian and Palestinian refugees are more likely to have skills in crafts and the like that are very useful right now. Most Lebanese families haven’t had to do this before. So now they have to adapt and figure out how to find food every day.

Young people are taking the initiative to buy hygiene supplies and detergents to clean inside people’s houses and in shops. This is helping to make people feel safer.

Others are driving around in their cars, using their speakers to broadcast announcements spreading awareness about good hygiene practices to slow the spread of the virus.

Youths are also organizing distributions of bread and food parcels. They pool money to buy the food to give away.

In Nahr El Bared, they are bringing food parcels to households that have volunteered to cook and prepare the food in bulk. Then they distribute the meals to vulnerable families in the neighborhood. We’re even seeing landlords waving rent for the next month or two.

These kinds of mutual aid efforts are really critical. Most people in these camps are day workers so staying home means they earn nothing and have nothing to eat.

There are many, many food and cash distribution initiatives and sanitation initiatives happening. People are using Facebook and WhatsApp to communicate and find each other to organize the initiatives and ask people to contribute with money or food donations.

In Tripoli, people are offering to deliver food to people so they don’t need to leave their homes.

Manal (left) with two of her children in their home in Qoubbe, Lebanon
Manal (left) with two of her children in their home in Qoubbe, Lebanon. There are many families in north Lebanon who live in less-than-adequate housing.

We need to tell these stories to convey a better image of ourselves. It is important to change the negative perception toward people here, where the media focus only on a few incidents of radicalism, and sectarian conflicts which do not reflect our true image. We are much more than that. Yes, there are many vulnerable people and refugees among us — but it is not all just hardship. We have many good people here who support each other. We love to make art and we treasure all of the things people enjoy everywhere.

As for the programs I am working on with Anera, we are focusing on awareness outreach. We are using online platforms and our networks with local partners to convey educational information to help minimize the spread of COVID-19. For instance, we are now disseminating our online awareness materials for our beneficiaries and network in the area.

We had been getting ready to launch many of our programs for the year when the pandemic hit and we had to freeze everything. We did have the advantage of having experience working from home in October and November last year during the protests and roadblocks. So we were ready. We’ve quickly made adjustments to our work. We’ve been seeing each other (remotely) on a daily basis — even more than before.

Technology has been very helpful. We’ve conducted many awareness sessions using Zoom, starting with our partners and their staff. Many of these sessions have focused on debunking misinformation about the coronavirus. There is a lot of incorrect information being spread through WhatsApp and Facebook. So we’re trying to correct that.

We’re also figuring out how to keep ourselves healthy and focused. After the first week at home, the stress began to get to us. So we started to make a point of sharing things we are grateful for with each other. It’s been a way of opening up to each other, sharing our concerns, our fears for families and things like that. We thank God for the good things that we have. For myself, I’m grateful for my health and my family. They can see me now more than before. And I’m really glad that I’m able to help others. My job is to serve others and I’m so glad to be able to do that.

Solidarity is the main point for me. This is what will make us more resilient and help us to adapt, and the coronavirus is just pushing us further in this direction. People aren’t waiting for the official agencies and government support. They’re acting for themselves. It’s really giving us hope. In this solidarity we can see the good in others.

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