Young people in Beirut, which was devastated by an explosion in a warehouse at the city’s port on 4 August 2020, have been pitching in to get the Lebanese capital back on its feet, with support from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
With no employment prospects in sight, Rafah found it hard to stay positive, amid the destruction of her city. A UNICEF project has since given her, and hundreds of others, fresh purpose, providing them with an income, and setting them a daunting task: the clean-up, and rehabilitation, of Beirut.
In the aftermath of the explosion, UNICEF staff, alongside partners on the ground, conducted house-to-house surveys of families, and a series of technical assessments of larger buildings. They estimated that 300,000 people, including 100,000 children, were directly affected by the disaster.
Rafah is part of a 1,900 strong youth network, mobilized by the UN agency, focusing on cleaning, minor rehabilitation of houses and, critically, helping to reconnect homes to municipal and private water supplies.
The programme, Cash 4 Work, provides knowledge and training from fully-qualified professionals and, in a country whose economy is in a critical state, financial assistance. © UNICEF/Fouad ChoufanyTwenty-three-year-old Rafah is one of hundreds of young Lebanese who participated in the clean-up and rehabilitation of Beirut.
‘There are no job opportunities in Lebanon’
The participants, primarily the most vulnerable and poorer members of society, who cannot find employment in the local job market, are paid to work. The programme is also playing a part in binding this fractured society together, as the young men and women bond through teamwork and a shared goal of successfully completing their projects and improving their surroundings.
“There are no job opportunities in Lebanon, so this programme helped me”, says Rafah. “Now, when I look forward, I feel I did something for myself, and this is a nice achievement. My personality has changed a lot”.
Her colleague, 24-year-old Mohammad, is equally upbeat about his time spent on the programme: “We are training youth as painters and, in parallel, we are working with others on renovating houses damaged in the explosions, that haven’t been repaired in almost a year. I am happy that I gained a skill, and I am still learning. To work on my future and achieve my goals, especially in these difficult times, is something special”. © UNICEF/Fouad ChoufanySin El Fil Public Elementary School is one of the Beirut schools that was rehabilitated thanks to UNICEF.
A lesson in resilience
Schoolchildren have also been helping to get the city working and studying again, keen to return to lessons as soon as possible. Sisters Mira, 12, and Amal, 13, helped clear debris at their school in Achrafieh in the days following the explosion. “We’ve been going there for seven years,” Amal says. “It was like our second home. How could we not be part of the clean-up?”
More than 160 schools in Beirut were damaged, littering them with piles of rubble and broken glass, and leaving them without doors and windows. Getting them reopened was yet another challenge for the nation’s education system, which was already reeling from the economic crisis and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ensuring children have access to education is a key priority for UNICEF. Education provides them with opportunities for the future, and a sense of normalcy for both children and parents. It also provides a feeling of hope, and a safe space for children experiencing trauma. © UNICEF/Fouad ChoufanyLebanese schoolgirl Mira, 12, help to clear rubble at her school in the days following the explosion.
“The explosions increased the risk that children, especially the most vulnerable, would not be able to return to school and learn,” says Atif Rafique, Chief of Education at UNICEF Lebanon. “We needed to exert every effort to rehabilitate schools as quickly as possible amid the chaos and devastation that surrounded them”.
With the support of the UN, resources were rapidly mobilized to get lightly to moderately damaged schools back in operation as soon as possible. Larger-scale reconstruction and rehabilitation were effectively coordinated with the UN education agency, UNESCO, and other partners, whilst UNICEF helped to get Beirut’s schools back in shape and ready to welcome students to the classroom when full-time education restarted.
“Studying online is okay, but school is better,” reflects Mira. “Nothing replaces the experience of learning in a classroom”.