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Last summer's devastating explosion in Beirut has had an outsized impact on marginalized communities. LGBTQ locals, in particular, have lost homes, jobs and safe spaces in progressive neighborhoods.
The office was only 600 meters (656 yards) away from ground zero of last August's massive explosion in Beirut's port, a blast that destroyed several neighborhoods in the Lebanese capital and came on top of a worsening economic and political crisis.
Despite being so close, co-workers at Helem — the acronym is Arabic and the organization describes itself as "the first LGBTQIA+ rights organization in the Arab world" — were not seriously injured, even though their headquarters were badly damaged. LGBTQIA+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer or questioning, asexual and many others, such as non-binary and pansexual.
"Thank God nobody was really hurt," Tarek Zeidan, the organization's executive director, said as he recalled the disaster. "The office was completely destroyed. We lost all our papers and files but most importantly, we lost a safe space for the LGBTQ community here."
Fifteen months later, life has returned to Helem's headquarters. The organization has resumed its work here and once again the local LGBTQ community has a place where they can gather without fear of discrimination or harassment, Zeidan said.
The devastating port explosion last August, caused by incorrectly stored ammonium nitrate, destroyed large parts of the nearby Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh neighborhoods. The areas were known for their many trendy bars, clubs and cafes, their relaxed atmosphere, and their gentrification and comparatively high rents. As a result, it was also home to those LGBTQ people in Beirut who could afford it.
The damage in these neighborhoods has had a big impact on those who lived there and in fact, the whole LGBTQ scene in the city.
Zeidan believes it had even more of an impact on nearby neighborhoods where the less affluent lived, including LGBTQ people who couldn't afford the high rents in trendy Mar Mikhael or Gemmayzeh. Many were forced to leave their damaged homes and move back in with their families.
"Often these were the very places they had left to escape violence, discrimination, psychological pressure and abuse from family members, relatives or neighbors," Zeidan told DW.
Mana Jumana found herself in just such a situation. At the time of the explosion, the local woman who identifies as lesbian and who prefers not to use her real name for fear of harassment, had been at home in Mar Mikhael preparing for a night out with friends. She still finds it hard to talk about that day, the stress and the fear, the panicked search for missing friends. Her eyes fill with tears. Although any physical wounds have healed, the psychological ones clearly remain.
As does the practical impact of the disaster: The port explosion saw Jumana lose her apartment in Mar Mikhael and her job, too. Her financial and social independence gone, Jumana saw no other option but to return to her family home — a place she had left three years previously after an argument. Since then, she has had barely any contact with her relatives.
Thankfully, she told DW, the atmosphere at home has improved. Her mother and her sister have been more understanding since the explosion — although, as Jumana, knows, other members of the local LGBTQ community have not been so lucky.
A lot of them were also forced to leave their homes in more permissive neighborhoods for less expensive and potentially less progressive areas on the outskirts of the city. Some had to move to the countryside or left for more conservative cities elsewhere, like Tripoli.
"And there, they're more likely to be exposed to a society that will reject or harass them," Zeidan said.
For many members of the LGBTQ community, the port explosion did more than cause physical dislocation.
Ghiwa Abi Haidar, an activist working mainly through digital media, told DW she had ended her "personal relationship" with Mar Mikhael, even though she continues to live in the neighborhood.
"When I visited Mar Mikhael for the first time after the explosion, I saw victims with my own eyes," she said. "I wondered: What should I do now in this place where so many people died, and where I almost died myself?"
Abi Haidar explained how she tried to rekindle the feelings she had for her neighborhood over the following weeks. She also volunteered to help clean up the streets after the explosion. But she no longer felt that life could be as free and easy in Mar Mikhael as it once was. Many of her friends left the city or went into exile overseas. Life in Mar Mikhael is very different from before, she said.
"I don't have the same connection to the place," Abi Haidar explained. "The bonds we built over the years have been lost. And it's so hard to re-establish them in a society that suffers from so much alienation and exclusion."
Many LGBTQ locals in Beirut have had to deal with serious economic consequences resulting from the port explosion. A report compiled by Helem, together with the charity Oxfam, found that while the unemployment rate in the city went up to 40% after the explosion, among the LGBTQ community it was as high as 80%.
It is also difficult for LGBTQ locals to access Lebanon's national health system as there is also potential for discrimination in this sector, Abi Haidar added.
All of these issues continue to impact her life, the activist explained. She believes that altogether, the various crises impacting Lebanon today — the port explosion, the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic issues and the political gridlock — mean she will never be able to live the kind of life she wants here.
She dreams of love and marriage and a decent life. But she knows that will be impossible in the ruins of Beirut. "I know there is no place for me in Lebanon now," she concludes. "I know I will have to emigrate."
Adapted from the Arabic original by Kersten Knipp