Emergency response social worker from SOS Children
LEBANON – August 11 2021

Beirut explosion: Testimony of a social worker at SOS Lebanon

23-year-old social worker Cherine Zaydan works in the field with the families affected by the explosion in the port of Beirut.

I am Cherine Zaydan, a 23-year-old social worker and recent graduate from the Lebanese University. Working in the Emergency Response Program at SOS Children’s Villages Lebanon was my first professional experience following several internships in NGOs and community centers.

I found it easy to fulfill my role within my daily tasks as I consider my job a mission and—most importantly—it is based on love. It is one of the reasons that I am able to do my job in a positive and patient manner. We connect with the families and provide them with support, guidance and cash assistance, while helping them cope, find solutions, build resilience and network with additional resources, such as referral to other NGOs when needed.

On August 4, 2020 at 6:08 p.m., Beirut witnessed a blast that shook the capital to its core. The blast destroyed homes, killed more than 180 individuals and left thousands injured. In the midst of the small and populated city, damage affected more than 40,000 buildings and more than 200,000 housing units.

That day was only one part of the nightmare. Since October 2019, the country has faced political instability, ongoing protests, road closures and a collapsing economy with local currency depreciation that has reached 90% of its purchasing power. We then faced the additional burden of a global pandemic, which paralyzed the country across many sectors. The pandemic imposed a heavy burden on the medical sector, adding on the challenges faced with dwindling supplies and lack of purchasing ability of medical supplies and medications.

Performing field work in an area that was destroyed by 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate—in a country where the government had little impact on implementing safety relief, safety measures and renovation work—made it difficult for me and the team to visit homes that had not yet been fixed. A large part of the area consisted of old buildings, with homes suffering structural damage, and were not always safe for visits. With no official database of victims or contact numbers, reaching affected families, deciding which families to visit and which to assist was a second limitation. We needed community outreach and a customized database that would help us in our decision making.

Lockdowns and full closures due to COVID-19 outbreaks made it even harder for us to visit the families at home, to do follow-up online due to internet connectivity issues or to process the administrative work in offices and with the banks for monetary transfers. Yet despite all challenges, the project still ran smoothly and families received the support systematically and on time.

Among the challenges faced, there were also those that we faced on a personal level. In a country with a collapsing economy, basic needs and living conditions are becoming more and more difficult to attain for all of us. Exposure to families imposed a COVID-19 health risk for both me and the team. There was always the fear of catching the virus and affecting our immediate families, especially as medications began running out and hospital beds were at full capacity.

Like all Lebanese, we also faced struggles with the economic instability, especially financial struggles due to depreciation of local currency and inflation of food and basic expenses. We also were trying to meet our everyday needs of electricity, water and stable internet. Filling cars with fuel to complete visits and field work would mean a one or two hour stop at a gas station at least twice a week. In some cases, we would not be able to commute as no fuel was available.

But perhaps the hardest struggle for all, yet at times the most rewarding, was dealing with families. Despite the drastic losses the families had faced—including family members, homes, jobs and all sense of stability and security—watching the families fight to regain their sense of normalcy, when there was no sense of "normal" anywhere, helped us build our own resilience and coping mechanisms as a team.

By providing psychosocial support at all levels—to the parents, children and in groups—we were able to see minor but positive changes in how families cope, communicate, solve problems and resolve conflicts. We provided financial support to these families, as well as hope, guidance and a chance to have them focus on the mental and physical health of their households as their basic needs were being taken care of.

The work was challenging and obstacles were faced, yet the number of families reached—as well as the comprehensive assistance being provided to meet their needs throughout these challenging times—added a dimension of reward and personal satisfaction despite our personal and everyday struggles. For me, this aligns with my goal of providing social work with motivation, dedication and love.

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