A Year After the Beirut Port Explosion: Teach For Lebanon’s Journey Toward Collective Recovery Continues

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By Talal Achi, Teach For Lebanon Communications Officer, and Zeina Kammoun, Teach For Lebanon Communications & Marketing Manager

A little before 6:00 p.m. on August 4, 2020, a large quantity of ammonium nitrate stored at the port of Beirut caught fire. A few minutes later, Beirut was devastated by one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history. At least 200 people were killed, 7,000 injured, and over 300,000 lost their homes. This happened in the midst of an ongoing political and economic crisis, at one of the most difficult times for Lebanon since the civil war. Yet, in the face of catastrophe, the citizens of Beirut came together in solidarity: they volunteered en masse to clean up debris, they formed ad hoc relief organizations like Nation Station and they opened their homes to those in need of shelter. 

It’s now been a year since the Beirut port explosion. Today, we mourn those who passed away, we stand with those who lost loved ones, lost their homes, or suffered injuries, and we celebrate the kindness, resilience, and bravery the Lebanese people have demonstrated in the face of this tragedy. 

This is also the time when, as an organization, we look back at our own response to the Beirut port explosion and its aftermath. Teach For Lebanon responded to the Beirut blast in a number of ways, the most systematic of which is through our Build Back Better (BBB) initiative. The BBB was designed with four components: 

  • Kit distribution: Supported by DHL, Teach For Lebanon distributed 1,000 hygiene and stationery packs to students affected by the blast between the fourth quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021. 
  • The School Community Support Training Program: This program was designed and implemented in partnership with Nafsaniyoun to help teachers (including Teach For Lebanon fellows) and other school workers identify and address mental health issues in their students. Through the School Community Support Training Program over 500 teachers and administrative workers in 165 schools throughout Lebanon attended 30 hours of training sessions led by experts in education and psychology, supplemented by five hours of personal readings and reflections. 
  • Psychosocial support: Teach For Lebanon’s partnership with Nafsaniyoun also includes ongoing psychosocial support sessions for parents, students, and teachers affected by the Beirut port explosion, as well as other crises. By the end of summer 2021, we will have provided psychosocial support to over 200 beneficiaries. 
  • Homework support and tutoring/laptop donations: Originally, the fourth component of the BBB initiative was intended to be homework support and tutoring by Teach For Lebanon Fellows and alumni. Although we reached over 70 students, we eventually opted, due to the pandemic and ensuing school closures and lockdowns, to reroute funds from this pillar of the initiative toward purchasing laptops and distributing them among schools where our fellows teach (you can support our recently-launched campaign here).

In addition, Teach For Lebanon also organized a student art competition in two schools in December 2020 with a goal of producing artwork on the theme of rebuilding Lebanon “with will and hope.” Sixty-one students took part and created  art, poetry, music, and videos to convey their vision of a better Lebanon. The overall aim of the competition was to give students an opportunity to heal, to give them space to creatively express their feelings and thoughts about everything that had happened to their country, and to reward them for that. 

Finally, Teach For Lebanon has consistently addressed the Beirut port explosion through the work of our fellows. Teach For Lebanon fellows are not simply school teachers, they are community leaders. As a result, fellows function as pillars of support for the communities in which they work. They make themselves available to meet with students, parents, and school staff to tackle any issues that might arise. On top of this, they regularly organize extracurricular activities to meet the needs of the communities that range from collaborations with network partners aimed at cultural exchange between students, to programs designed to raise awareness of and reduce gender-based violence, to protests. 

Over this past year, many of our fellows’ extracurricular activities directly or indirectly responded to the blast. One example of this is an activity led by fellows Fatima Shahrour, Danielle Jreije, and Dany Webbeh at Sahaguian college, where they incorporated “self-care” and “self-confidence” sessions in their daily classes. Over the course of the year, they were able to identify issues many of their students were struggling with, from trauma as a result of current events, to depression and lack of confidence. In response, the fellows organized support sessions to offer students a safe space to express their feelings and open up. The fellows also supervised Grade 12 students who presented a session about the relationship between mental health and academic life for their community.

Although a year has passed, we’re still very much in the aftermath of the Beirut port explosion. Lebanon remains devastated – not only by the rippling effects of the blast, but also by crippling economic and political crises, and by the pandemic. Fortunately, these crises have made all of us at Teach For Lebanon even stronger and more resilient than we were before, and we’ve learned from them. We’ve learned, among other things, the importance of prioritizing and supporting the mental health of our community – fellows, staff, students, and parents alike. As a result, we are beginning to brainstorm new projects for our partnership with Nafsaniyoun to make the kind of professional development our fellows received through the School Community Support Training Program an integral part of their training, as well as consistently providing psychosocial support. We look forward to the future, because in order for Lebanon to recover, our mission is more important than ever. If we want a better Lebanon, we have to raise the generation of leaders who will build it anew, and we have to do so now.