They fled the war in Syria ... only to die in Beirut double explosion

A mother, a husband, a brother ... These Syrian families thought they lived through the worst when they left their country, only to lose their loved ones in the tragedy that hit the Lebanese capital.

They fled the war in Syria ... only to die in Beirut double explosion

Aref el-Ali found the passport cover of his brother Mohammad killed in Beirut port double explosion. Photo by João Sousa

"Baba, where is mom?" " She went to Cham (Syria)." "Can we call her on WhatsApp? "

Alaa el-Mohammad, 31, cannot find the words before the pleas of his young children Zeinab, 7, and Omar, 4. How can he tell them that he had to take the body of their mother, Nawal, 28, to the Syrian border without being able to cross into their home country since he would risk arrest or compulsory military recruitment? His relatives had to take over and carry her body to her last resting place in her native village of Sabikhan, near Boukamal.

Nawal is one of the 40 identified Syrian victims of the deadly August 4 explosions that rocked the port of Beirut. "No matter how much it was going to cost me, I absolutely wanted to see her laid to rest in Syria," said her husband, a week after the tragedy that killed at least 180 people. He was lucky enough to receive financial assistance from his employer. But many had no choice but to bury their loved ones in cemeteries reserved for Syrian refugees, such as in Daraya in the Chouf mountains or a remote village in the northern Akkar region. "There are awful cases. Many Syrian families in Lebanon are unaware of their rights, and we are here to assist them," said Yasmin Kayali, co-founder of the NGO Bassmeh & Zeitooneh, adding that a private donor expressed readiness "to pay for the funerals of the Syrian victims of the double explosion."

Who is going to remember those Syrians who lost their lives? They thought they had escaped the worst by fleeing the war in their home country, sometimes under the most impossible conditions. They rebuilt their lives in Lebanon, founded a home, and were satisfied with the little this neighboring country had to offer them despite confronting daily forms of widespread racism. Under tents hastily pitched in the streets of Gemmayzeh, where NGOs work hard to distribute aid to the victims, Alaa was denied assistance. "Are you Syrian? Go on your way," a man told him.

He, like other Syrians, got used to being seen as second-class citizens. So, when he learned, on August 6, that the French president was near his home, touring the devastated neighborhoods of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhaël, he rushed to greet him, unfortunately without success. "I always loved France; I learned the language at school. I used to listen to Sarkozy on TV. I wanted to thank Macron for being here. Arab leaders, whoever they are, do not respect their people," he said.

In his apartment with its old tiled floors and stained-glass windows near Sofil in the Achrafieh district, the smell of fresh paint filled the place, and nothing suggested a cataclysm has happened. On that day, his family was knocked down by the explosion and the little ones started to scream. By instinct, Alaa went out into the street, after making sure his family was okay, then headed to his employer's apartment, whom he found injured in his swimming pool. Without hesitation, he carried his boss on his back and rushed to the Saint-Georges University Medical Center, which, almost destroyed, was not able to admit him. Alaa refused to leave his side until he made sure the doctors were taking care of him at the Hôtel-Dieu de France Hospital. Alaa was unaware then that his wife, Nawal, who appeared to be unharmed, was in fact suffering from internal bleeding and was taken to the Sacred Heart Hospital. "I arrived just in time to take her hand, then she died," he said.

The el-Abed and Ismael families in their empty Quarantine apartment, more than a week after the explosions at the port of Beirut on August 4. Photo by João Sousa

"I don't know how to take care of a baby"

Nawal was only 20 when Alaa married her against his parents' will. She had just divorced a dissolute cousin with whom she lived in Saudi Arabia. "I feel lonely. We loved each other so much. I kept telling her to hang on here, even though it had been hard in the last few months because of the (economic) crisis. I got Syria off my head a long time ago," he said. By the end of 2012, clashes between various militant groups were ranging in Deir ez-Zor. Later, ISIS was able to seize large swathes of land and terrorized the local population. Alaa continued to travel back and forth between Beirut, where he settled a few years earlier, and his city, where some of the worst abuses were taking place. The public executions finally convinced him that he could no longer continue to live away from Nawal.

"Algerians, Tunisians, Germans, they all came to lay down the law and impose their vision of Islam on us, which was anything but Islam, " Alaa said. The Syrian regime bombed and dropped barrel bombs on the province, raising it to the ground and making it almost unrecognizable. After escaping the worst, Nawal and the children finally arrived in Beirut in 2017. It is here where their youngest, Jamaleddine, was born. "He's only one-year-old, my wife was breastfeeding him. I am giving him bottles at night, but I don't know how to take care of a baby, "the father said helplessly.

Little Farah is moving non-stop in the family apartment located in a working-class neighborhood of Sin el-Fil. She is only one-and-a-half-year-old, but she seems to perceive that something was wrong. "My husband wanted to name her Farah (joy) in the hope this would bring us good fortune," said Fatmet Blousso. The 35-year-old mother of four would look ten years younger had it not been of the dark circles under her eyes after shedding so many tears. Her husband, Abdelkader, 46, had just closed the shop where he worked in the Quarantine district when the port explosions took place. He died two hours later at a Bsalim hospital in the Metn region since the capital's hospitals were overwhelmed. Her two eldest daughters are sitting on a sofa, looking numb.

Her only son, Brahim, remains cloistered in the room. Ahed, 16, shows us his pencil sketches that depicted the faces of women and Lebanon's map with a heart broken in two. They have been living in Lebanon for seven years, after leaving Aleppo under the bombs. However, the girls don't really have Lebanese friends of their age. Here, we do not mix. The neighbors' disapproving looks are enough to remind them of their refugees' status, seen as "persona non grata." Abdelkader worked hard to provide for his family and kept waiting for a phone call that could have opened the doors of Europe for them. By fleeing Aleppo, they thought they escaped the worst after suffering from daily hardships and food rationing, the regime's relentless bombardment of their neighborhood, al-Cha'ar, and the destruction of their building. They fled from one city to another, fearing arrest by both pro-regime or anti-regime factions. "When we arrived in Lebanon, the little ones couldn't sleep at night. They were terrified at the slightest sound of fireworks," said Fatmet. "What do I do without him now?" She asked while breastfeeding Farah.

Aref el-Ali in the empty apartment on the 12th floor of the East Village building with a view of the port. This is where his brother Mohammad was killed in the blast.

"Even in soap operas, you cannot see a journey like ours"

The el-Abed and Ismael families escaped by a miracle. Their apartment, which housed 18 members of the two families, is located facing the Quarantine Public Garden and was destroyed in the blast. A volunteer who has come to repair the front door enters the now empty room, but the sound of the electric screwdriver terrifies the young children who closed their ears and ran to take refuge under their grandmother's abayya. Abdelkhalek el-Abed, 26, is lying like a statute on a mattress placed on the floor, with an empty look. He thanked heaven for sparing him, but he was a broken man now. His nephews pulled him out from under a pile of scarp that fell on him, but God knows when he would be able to afford surgery to treat his pelvic fracture. For these families from Deir ez-Zor, the explosions were the last straw.

"Even in soap operas, you will not see a journey like ours," said the family matriarch. "Our dream is to go home, but we have nothing left there," she said. "Can you imagine mom, our house in Deir, after all these years, would be a castle today," Abdallah commented, trying to make his mother smile.

It is the story of Syrian landowners who were forced to sell everything for pennies and seek refuge in a slum at the Quarantine district; the story of young men forced to abandon their studies in Arabic literature or engineering to come and pick up the Beirutis' trash for a few hundred thousand Pounds. Abdallah Ismael has once again survived. He came off with a few scratches, but his morale is low. After escaping the bombing at the start of the war in Syria, he had to flee his country because its new occupiers were enforcing their law. "I was arrested by ISIS because I was wearing a T-shirt that was not to their liking. After a night in the cell, I realized that I couldn't stay there any longer," he said. He left everything behind. Penniless, he fled from town to town, going through Raqqa, Tell Abyad, Idlib, before reaching Turkey. For a year, he toiled in a factory day and night to raise enough money to bring his family to Lebanon. But he quickly became disillusioned. "Here, we are not considered human," he blurted, before regretting having said too much.

Aref el-Ali plunges his hand in the middle of the broken glass, taking out a passport cover and a tattered receipt for the mechanic's payment. "This belonged to Mohammad!" He said. The weathered-faced man crouches down, staring blankly, facing the now bare bay windows. The Port of Beirut is just at 300 meters as the crow flies from here. His brother, Mohammad, 31, was struck by the double explosion as he watched the fire in the same unoccupied apartment on the 12th floor of the East Village in Mar Mikhael. Floor after floor, the stairwell hinted at the panic and the horror that the occupants experienced. A scooter thrown in a corner, a teddy bear covered in white dust and traces of dried blood on the steps. On the ground floor, near the concierge's lodge, cups of coffee were still placed on a pink plastic table covered with rubble. It was from there that Mohammad al-Ali rushed upstairs to try to figure out what was going on. Three other people died in the building, including its architect, Frenchman Jean-Marc Bonfils.

Before becoming its janitor, Mohammad was a worker on the construction site of this ultramodern building. "Everyone liked him here. The inhabitants had even given him the keys to their homes. He was a warm, smiling person. There weren't two like him," his brother said. A descendant of a family of peasants from al-Sukkariah al-Koubra, a village near al-Bab, in the province of Aleppo, Mohammad never wanted to join the rebels who gradually seized his region. Like many, he was seduced by the wave of change at the beginning but refused to carry arms with one side against another. Therefore, he fled from village to village, and finally reached Lebanon in 2014 with his wife and never set foot in Syria again.

"Do you think I'll die here (in Lebanon)? he said one day to Aref, who just answered with a smile. He left behind a 6-year-old girl and two boys, ages 3 and one. "He had no illusions about his life in Lebanon, and he only lived for his little ones to get a good education. One day, he came home upset. He had been refused entry to a public garden with his children simply because they were Syrians, "said Aref el-Ali. This incident still hurts el-Ali, who could no longer hold back his tears.

(This aarticle was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 20th of August)

"Baba, where is mom?" " She went to Cham (Syria)." "Can we call her on WhatsApp? "Alaa el-Mohammad, 31, cannot find the words before the pleas of his young children Zeinab, 7, and Omar, 4. How can he tell them that he had to take the body of their mother, Nawal, 28, to the Syrian border without being able to cross into their home country since he would risk arrest or compulsory military...