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THE HELPER WHO KNOWS
WHAT IT'S LIKE

The war drove Mohammed Khamis from his Syrian homeland in 2012. In Beirut, he founded an NGO so he could help other refugees.
But how do you find meaning in a life that’s been turned upside down?

KHAMIS

You can achieve things

– Mohammed Khamis

no matter where you are

The text messages remind Mohammed Khamis how his life could have unfolded. On his phone, he still has the numbers of some of his old friends from Ma’arrat al-Numan in Syria’s Idlib province. They write to one another regularly. Rashwan went to Sweden and became a professional soccer player. Ismail sends photos from northern Germany of shisha smoke against a sweeping sky. Abdul is still in Syria, living in hiding to escape the jaws of the regime. Faris was drafted into Bashar al-Assad’s army and now shoots his countrymen. The names of Mohammed’s friends have been altered because the fact that these connections exist could put any one of them in danger, anytime.

“You can achieve things no matter where you are,” says Mohammed Khamis, drumming the fingers of his left hand on a glass table in the center for refugees that he set up two years ago. The NGO Hemet Shabab is housed in a former clothing store in the Bourj Hammoud district. The walls have been propped up by wooden boards. From the ground floor of the center, a few steps lead down to a windowless basement lit by cold neon lights. Framed photographs of the various teams stand on a shelf: surrounded by laughing children, handing out boxes of food to families, and wielding brooms and dustpans at the big cleanup effort after August 4, 2020.

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Mohammed Khamis is the head of the NGO Hemet Shabab. He packs bags with hygiene products for people in need - and is a hero for the children from the neighborhood

Today the NGO has 170 volunteers. No fewer than 80% of them are Syrian. The rest are mostly Palestinian, but more and more Lebanese are joining too. “We wanted to show that young Syrians can achieve something, even if they’re unable to find work in this country,” says Mohammed. Hemet means “eagerness” or “ambition” in Arabic, while Shabab means “youth.” The 26-year-old founder – lean build, tidy haircut, always in action – is the mainstay of the organization. The others call him “mudir,” which means “manager” or “chief.” The idea for setting up his own aid agency, offering services which would – naturally – be free, came to Mohammed after other Syrian refugees began approaching him more and more frequently to ask how they could get food or medicine, or contact one of the big aid organizations. Mohammed had been taking courses offered by various NGOs for more than five years, and word had spread that he had connections.

On September 10, 2012, Mohammed climbed out of a derelict vehicle at the Beirut bus station. The night before, Abd al Sitar, his father, had announced to his son that he was sending him away. “It was two days before my birthday, but he refused to change his mind. I had to leave right away,” Mohammed recalls. His home city, Ma’arrat al-Numan in northwestern Syria, was being bombed by the Assad regime and had been under attack for weeks. Mohammed, one of seven children and the eldest son, climbed into the shared taxi. Just for a few months, he thought, he would stay with his sister, whose family had moved to a Beirut suburb a few years earlier, and then return home.

Hemet Shabab's headquarters is located in the basement of a former clothing store. Yusra Nawasra (center) comes from Dara'a in Syria, and since the summer of 2020 has been active with the NGO, which has become an important point of contact for many refugees

It helps me to feel that I’m

– Sozdar Ahmed

helping other people

Talking about the years he lived in Syria and the beginning of his time in Lebanon, Mohammed says he has pushed many things to the back of his mind. But he remembers that life was good in Ma’arrat al-Numan before the war: “We had money, we had work and we were safe.” His father owned two buses and they had olive trees in the garden. He was 17 when he began his new life in Beirut, staying with his sister and sleeping on a couch. After a few days he found work in a furniture factory, where he sanded and polished kitchen cabinets for many months on end. With the $2,500 that he earned, he was able to rent a three-room apartment and furnish it too. In May 2013, after narrowly avoiding death, Mohammed’s parents and two younger siblings arrived in Beirut.

“The fact that Mohammed is helping other people makes it easier for me to keep going with my head held high,” says his father Abd al Sitar. Mohammed nods repeatedly, but says nothing, which is unusual for him. “We were happy in Syria,” their father continues, “I didn’t want to come here.” On his smartphone, he shows us a picture of his bus: a burnt-out shell. He doesn’t know who ordered the bomb attack, which killed the driver too. Later, his other bus was stolen. At 62, Abd al Sitar seems at a loss rather than bitter: “I built up the company for 40 years – what shall I do now?” Upon arriving in Lebanon and encouraged by Mohammed’s energy and drive, his father started over and opened up a dollar store. At first, the business thrived, so he opened a second one. But that’s all history now. Today, Abd al Sitar runs a small second-hand store, but it’s not making any money. Mohammed works part time for the aid organization Care. The $320 that he earns covers the rent for both apartments, the NGO center and his father’s store.

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 other people makes it easier for me to keep

– Abd al-Sitar Khamis

 going with my head held high 

„The fact that Mohammed is helping

Life was never easy, even before the crisis. Mohammed’s brother Ahmed, now 18, says he encountered racism on a daily basis in Beirut. Young people made fun of his Syrian accent, and the Lebanese would scornfully ask: “What are you doing here?” The family sometimes ask themselves that too. “If only we could all go back,” their father says with a sigh, only to name the main reason they can’t: “My sons would have to join the army.” This is the primary reason millions of other Syrian men can’t return to their homeland. By 2015, the U.N. Refugee Agency had registered approx. 860,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but they estimate that the figure is now nearly twice as high. Some 90% are living in extreme poverty, whereas in 2019 it was “only” 50%. The Lebanese government did give financial help to 238,000 Syrian refugee families in 2020, but the fear of being deported remains.

The next day, in the Hemet Shabab center, a software course is underway. The class is intended to help volunteers apply for work with other NGOs or even help them find a paying job. Or leave the country and go someplace else. That’s what Sozdar Ahmed dreams of too. She’s Kurdish and comes from northern Syria. Her family had moved to Beirut to find work even before the war. Three of her brothers fled to Germany and now live in Bremen. Sozdar lives with her parents and two disabled brothers in a small apartment in Bourj Hammoud. “It all comes down to me,” she complains. She talks to the landlord, whom they already owe several months’ rent; she tries to find medication for her sick parents and brothers; and she’s the only one earning money, working for Caritas. “They could get help in Germany, we talk about that all the time,” says Sozdar. But for now, in Beirut, the Ahmeds depend on her small income and even more on the food they receive from the U.N. Refugee Agency – as well as small contributions from her brothers in Bremen. “It helps me to feel that I’m helping other people,” says the 26-year-old, referring to her work with Hemet Shabab. This is true for everyone here: Other people’s thanks give meaning to their lives.

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At the reunion in the port district, one year after the clean-up operation by Hemet Shabab, cell phone pictures are used to compare what it looked like immediately after the disaster, and to debate with residents how to proceed. And to help everybody, computer courses are also held regularly at the headquarters of the small NGO

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The cleanup effort after the August 4 explosion immediately benefited everyone, which is why it was so fulfilling. On the streets of Bourj Hammoud, car alarms shrieked and children screamed. “At first I thought a gas tank had exploded. Then, that we’d been attacked by a fighter jet,” says Mohammed. “It took a while for me to realize what had happened.” He found his parents unhurt, and his brother wasn’t injured either.

That night, the volunteers informed as many people in the neighborhood as they could about the whereabouts of their family members. The next morning, Mohammed posted a message on Facebook saying: “We’re going to go help those who need it most. Meet us at Martyrs’ Square.” Equipped with dustpans, brooms and garbage bags, the Hemet Shabab crew spent 20 days in the neighborhoods near the port before returning to Bourj Hammoud.

- Thore Schröder

NOW LOVE LIVES
SOMEWHERE ELSE

From his small convenience store, Vasken Jebidelikian supplies his neighborhood with fruit and vegetables. His children, and then his wife, emigrated to Sydney. In the wake of August 4, 2020, why is he still in Beirut?
What keeps him there?

VASKEN

it would all be even worse”

– Vasken Jebidelikian

“If it wasn’t for God,

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In the few hours that Vasken Jebidelikian is not in his store, he tries to relax watching television

Soon after the explosion, when the most urgent repairs and replacements had been made and his shop was open once again, Vasken Jebidelikian got himself a new television: a cathode-ray tube model, Panasonic. It now stands on top of the refrigerator next to the entrance. The picture is generally grainy; the sound is full of static. In the afternoon, when there isn’t much going on, he watches Egyptian black-and-white films from the 1950s.

Harmless slapstick and romance. Then Vasken seems completely relaxed. There haven’t been many such moments, not for years. And since August 4, 2020, they have become even rarer.

The small store is an important focal point in the Geitawi district; in the evenings, Jebidelikian often goes through the collection of old family photos

Vasken is Armenian. His grandfather Ohannes was a wealthy draper in Ottoman Adana. As part of the Armenian minority, his family was deported to the eastern Syrian desert in 1915, where Vasken’s grandmother and two of her children died of starvation. The rest of the family fled to Lebanon, at that time a French mandated territory. In 1945, his parents rented a flat on the second floor of a house that had just been built in the Beirut district of Geitawi. Their son still lives there; his convenience store is right across the street. It’s typical of those in the old Beirut neighborhoods: small shops that carry all kinds of items that people need on a daily basis. There are four such stores within 50 meters of one another in his neighborhood. Each one attracts custom with its specialty. In Vasken’s store, it’s the fruit and vegetables, which are fresh every day. Vasken keeps his blue-rimmed glasses on the tip of his nose and generally wears a shirt with a makeshift patch on it somewhere. His trousers are held up by suspenders. From morning to night, he sits on his office chair taking phone orders, jotting them down in the Armenian alphabet on tattered cigarette cartons, then calls out to Abdo, his assistant. “Abdo, take 10,000 lira of change to Madame Halabi.” “Abdo, clean out the refrigerator.” “Abdo, wash the lettuce.” It goes on like this all day.

Inside the store, which measures about 70 square meters, there’s controlled chaos. Buckets full of flour, sugar and olives. Large refrigerators with dairy products, beer and soft drinks. Hygiene articles, cleaning products, freshly ground coffee, canned foods: a broad range of items in narrow aisles, with holy icons keeping watch over it all. Vasken pasted his price lists on a refrigerator. He has to keep changing them because of inflation. Since the explosion, two of the big shutters are permanently pulled up. It would cost $400 that he doesn’t have to repair them. Vasken takes medicine for high blood pressure and diabetes. His back has been damaged for years. After only a few minutes on his feet, he has to sit down again. “I’m not in good shape,” he says. Recently he fell from a ladder and ripped two tendons in his shoulder, so now he also needs an operation. Nevertheless, he gets up every morning at half past four and drives his white Subaru station wagon to the wholesale vegetable market in the Beirut district of Sin el Fil to get the freshest produce before the masses turn up.

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“I also have

– Vasken Jebidelikian

to act as psychologist here.”

Vasken only got as far as fifth grade at school. There was the civil war, and he had to help his father in the shop. Soon he went out delivering fruit and vegetables – with a pistol. He carried it in the waistband of his trousers, “like in Texas,” he says and laughs. “There were a lot of gangsters around, and we had to protect ourselves.” Vasken recalls the Syrian siege and the shelling in 1978. “It was like Stalingrad. We slept, played and ate in the bunker.” A missile hit the family’s 1968 Plymouth Valiant – every generation in Beirut has had their explosions. In 1986, his parents died within a few weeks of each other. In 1992, Vasken married Baydzar, two years his senior. “Those were good years. There was money and stability,” he remembers.

Vasken and his wife raised two children. Emmanuel is 24, Shake – named after her deceased grandmother – 28 years old. Both have been living in Sydney for years. The son went over there first to attend university, then his sister followed him. When the pandemic arrived early in 2020, their mother had just gone Down Under for a visit – and stayed there. All three of them are determined to emigrate permanently. And Vasken wants to join them. “I hope God will also take me to Sydney,” he says, but so softly that it sounds as though he doesn’t really believe it himself.

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Vasken Jebidelikian is the sole ruler of his small shop; his pride and joy are his two children, who have been living in Australia for years

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all that bad here,

– Vasken Jebidelikian

at least then

And it wasn’t

On August 4, 2020 the entire five-story building was damaged and in danger of collapse. The explosion had blasted away doors and windows along with their frames and weakened load-bearing walls; cracks opened up across the walls of the living room and kitchen. “The sun was even shining in through them,” he says. Thanks to donations from the neighborhood and friends, his apartment has now been restored. Although much has gone missing since the catastrophe, he was nevertheless able to find the framed pictures of his children. They’re standing on the wardrobe next to his bed: his daughter and son at their university graduation ceremonies – his pride and joy. Then he burrows in a chocolate tin where he keeps black and white pictures from earlier days: his grandfather with a massive moustache, fez and gaiters. His father in a double-breasted suit and pocket handkerchief, as a citizen of the Ottoman Empire. His parents at their wedding, the bride with white ribbons in her hair. He himself at first communion, still with all his hair.

Vasken regrets that he, too, didn’t go away. Of all the boys in the group photo of his first communion, “half of them, definitely” were no longer in the country. “Los Angeles, Lyon, Milan,” he says, listing locations: In the meantime, he has relatives living everywhere. His sister Maria, now 68 years old, moved with her three children to Glendale in California in the early 1990s. He couldn’t leave, though: first there were his infirm parents, his father in a wheelchair. Then he got married; then they had kids. “And it wasn’t all that bad here, at least then.” He still thanks God every morning for another day. “If it wasn’t for God, it would all be even worse,” he says. “Then I would have fallen on my head from the ladder, and not just on my shoulder. Then maybe I would be dead.” Now, though, he can and must continue working, keep working, as long as he can. “Today the cucumbers are very fresh,” he says.

- Thore Schröder

THE TEARS, THE RAGE
AND THE STRENGTH

Yasmine and Fadlo Dagher, two generations of architects from the same family, founded the Beirut Heritage Initiative. Their mission is to rebuild the city’s magnificent old houses, the stone witnesses to its multicultural history

DAGHER

“A house has a soul

– Yasmine Dagher

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When Yasmine Dagher was unable to sleep as a young girl, she used to sneak through the family mansion at night. She crept past her father’s library, beneath the chandelier in the entrance hall and into the kitchen. Sometimes she snuck past the room where the piano that had once belonged to her great-grandmother stood. Pausing to listen to the music coming from the room, she was certain it was her great-grandmother’s spirit playing. Yasmine now knows that it was really her father playing his records. But even today, she still feels her ancestors’ presence. A house has a soul, of that she’s convinced.

The house that the Daghers have lived in for six generations is far more than just a dwelling. To its inhabitants, admirers and visitors, it stands as a reminder of their homeland’s history and forges an emotional connection with a country where society struggles so hard to find a common identity. The pale blue palace lies in the Gemmayzeh district. Three large arches adorn both the lower and the upper stories, and the windows are embellished with swirling ornaments. Hidden behind tall trees and a wall, the house itself is in a small garden – a peaceful oasis beside the busy main street thronged with cars. Looking up at the arched windows as you pass, you can’t help wondering what secrets they conceal. It’s that kind of house.

Then, in the summer of 2020, the port explosion sent a powerful shock wave hurtling through the neighborhood. It struck the house, shaking it to its foundations. It tore off the wooden ornaments, shattered the windows and devastated the interior, exposing the building’s insides like a gaping wound. The Beirut blast destroyed hundreds of houses just like this one. Many of the wounds still haven’t closed.

Yasmine Dagher, 27, is an architect like her father. Fadlallah Dagher, 61, who everyone calls Fadlo, is one of Lebanon’s leading architects. With his firm Dagher & Hanna, he has completed dozens of projects in recent decades. The explosion didn’t just hit his house with full force, it shook him to the core as well. “I didn’t know what was happening to me,” he says. The first day, he somehow managed to function and look after his mother, who had been injured in the blast. The second day, he and Yasmine went through the house to assess the damage. Then they had a look at the rest of the neighborhood. That’s when he realized the enormity of the catastrophe. “I sat and wept for three whole days,” says Fadlo. 
Fadlo is a serious, sensitive man. His fingers glide across the paper almost delicately as he studies his designs, making changes here and there with a red pen. When he talks about that day, which for many people in Beirut was the worst of their entire lives, his voice deepens, becomes husky, and his eyes cloud with sorrow. Sitting on the sofa with his daughter beside him, he is surrounded by antique furniture that is part of his history, part of Lebanon’s history. Then Fadlo pulls himself together, just like he did in August 2020.

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helps you understand

your own history”

– Fadlo Dagher

“Architecture

On day four, after shaking the shock from his limbs, Fadlo thought to himself: That’s enough. We can’t go on like this, we have to do something. So he and his daughter, along with other like-minded people, many of them from the same neighborhood, founded the Beirut Heritage Initiative. Their aim was to rebuild the houses that represent Lebanon’s rich cultural past ­– collect donations, assess the damage and organize their restoration.

The buildings in need of rescue were built in the latter years of the Ottoman Empire, during the time when Lebanon was part of the French Mandate, and in the modernist period that began after the country’s independence in 1943. According to the Beirut Heritage Initiative, a total of some 1,000 buildings were damaged by the blast, 670 of them heritage buildings. Of these, 200 were severely damaged. Only a small number of buildings have been restored to date because the Lebanese people have been left to do it on their own. The government, plagued as it is by corruption, has contributed nothing toward their reconstruction, abandoning its citizens to their fate once again.

The Daghers are the ideal candidates for this task. They know every stone, every corner of the neighborhood, and have for generations. Their ancestors settled in Gemmayzeh when the crowded houses and narrow streets were still just open fields. The Daghers’ house dates back to 1820, when a forefather erected a chapel on the site. Back then, the area abounded with mulberry trees hosting silk worms, and the silk they harvested was exported to France. Toward the end of the 19th century, Fadlo’s great-grandfather converted the building into a residence and added a second story. The house grew room by room – and the family history grew with it.

More than anything else, it is the story of a never-ending battle to save the house. Ironically, it is none other than Fadlo Dagher, a man and architect passionate about creating things, who has witnessed its destruction time and time again:

1976

Syrian army bullets pierced the facade. Fadlo plastered over the holes.

1978

a missile set the upper floor on fire. Fadlo extinguished it. 

1981

a mortar shell struck the house.
Fadlo removed the rubble. 

1985

five shells hit the house within several seconds of each other. Fadlo sat tight, fearing for his life.

1989

the house was caught in the crossfire between
rival militias. So Fadlo did what he always did:
He tried to eradicate the traces of war.

“We were exposed to everything and repaired the damage every time,” says Fadlo. But nothing compared with the blast in the summer of 2020. “That one second equaled more than 15 years of war.” He can’t explain why, but it never crossed Fadlo’s mind to leave. Not that he didn’t have opportunities to do so. In 1978, for instance, during a particularly bloody phase of the Lebanese civil war, Fadlo’s parents decided to leave the country and take the whole family with them. His four siblings went to Europe and never returned. Today, his three sisters live in Paris, his brother in New York. But Fadlo wouldn’t go. His father was furious, but his mother relented and stayed in Beirut. Today Fadlo can no longer recall why he was so adamant about staying. Perhaps it was just down to “youthful stubbornness,” he says.

But listening to him talk about his work, his life and the old houses in his neighborhood, you realize there was more to it than that. The bond Fadlo has with his country is stronger than any fear for his own survival, it outweighs any concern for his own wel-lbeing. “Architecture helps you understand your own history,” he says. “In Lebanon, houses are built from the stone that they stand on. Together, they create a whole.” It’s not so different where Fadlo is concerned. He can’t imagine living and working anywhere but Lebanon: He fits in here, warts and all. He’d feel like a fish out of water anywhere else. But Fadlo’s bond with his country didn’t form overnight. His father was an architect as well, and as a child, Fadlo loved playing with Lego. Later, after developing an interest in the history of the family home, he decided to study architecture. “But not because of my father,” he admits, “but because my best friend wanted to ­– and I didn’t have any better ideas.”

In 1985, after graduating, Fadlo was asked to illustrate a book about the history of Lebanon – the full history of Lebanon. It was a project that changed everything. To understand why, it’s important to realize that, the way history is taught in Lebanon, you never learn about the civil war. Nobody wants to confront what the Lebanese did to each during that period, it’s just too painful. Coming to terms with the full history of his country played a big part in forging Fadlo’s identity. “It opened my eyes and made me feel that I belonged. I realized the importance of this country’s cultural diversity. Every world empire has left its traces here – on us as well.”

Even those who prefer to gloss over the uglier parts of Lebanese history evoke Lebanon’s cultural heritage. They nostalgically recall the glory days when Lebanon’s middle classes built symbols of prosperity and progress, the very buildings Fadlo is fighting so hard to protect. “The port of Beirut was once the bridge between East and West,” he says. “Beirut was Arab, but with Western influences.” The buildings testify to this too. For Fadlo, they hark back to a time when the country was open to influences from elsewhere: When Christians and Muslims traded with the West together; when women could be seen taking part in public life for the first time; when a highly educated middle class spoke several languages as a matter of course.