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Beirut Faces Crisis As Explosion Comes Amid Food Shortages, Economic Struggle


All right. Let's actually zoom in now on Beirut and talk to someone who has been watching a lot of what the city has been going through. And he's part of the humanitarian situation there. It's Rafael Velasquez, who is the Lebanon country director for Mercy Corps, joining us on Skype. Thank you so much for taking a few minutes for us.

RAFAEL VELASQUEZ: Thank you, David.

GREENE: I think a lot of us are still just digesting what it must be like in that city right now for people who are going through this. I mean, can you just tell us - is there a moment or a scene that is standing out to you in terms of what you've seen in these hours since the explosion?

VELASQUEZ: There's a couple of things. The incident itself, first we thought it was an earthquake that lasted unusually long. And as I headed to the door, it's when the blast of the explosion reached us. And we realized that this was something bigger than that. A bit later in the day, we are walking around the streets of Beirut and looking at hospitals at full capacity and the streets covered in glass, people from all communities jumping into cleanup action and moving strangers to hospitals for immediate assistance.

GREENE: Can you just give me an example of the reality that is facing people who live in Beirut at this moment as they emerge from this?

VELASQUEZ: Yeah. It's difficult to explain in some ways. The number of shocks and stresses that Beirut and Lebanon in general has been withstanding to begin with. As you know, no other country has hosted more refugees per capita than Lebanon, with about 30% of its population now being refugees, many from the war in Syria. On top of that, like many other countries, Lebanon gets hit with COVID. We're now experiencing the highest numbers that Lebanon has ever seen.

On top of that, you have the economic crisis where people saw in the last four weeks their savings completely wiped out when the lira lost about 80% of its value compared to last year. And then now this happens. It's just one after the other. It's amazing to go out and see people stand up and go back to rebuild, go back to restart, after all of this.

GREENE: Is that what you're seeing, I mean, as you've been spending time on the streets? I mean, is there a resilience even facing something as unimaginable as this?

VELASQUEZ: It's hard to imagine that that would be the case and yet it is. I went out the very same afternoon as that happened. We had to make sure that we relocated a couple of our staff members whose houses had been damaged beyond - you know, they couldn't spend the night there. And, yes, I saw people in mopeds taking strangers to hospitals. I saw people creating ad hoc lists of missing people and people that were looking for their families. Lebanon is often referred to and compared to a phoenix because it constantly rises from the ashes. We just now have to make sure that organizations like ours, like Mercy Corps, are part of that restoration.

GREENE: What would you say is the biggest need right now for people in the coming days?

VELASQUEZ: Now, you have 300,000 people that have been displaced. Their needs will be felt in the next couple of days, even in the next weeks, in terms of water, sanitation, access to health. A vast number of small businesses and enterprises have been wiped out. These businesses did not have insurance. These businesses have lost their savings. These are owned by families. So we need to find a way to help restart those small enterprises.

GREENE: Rafael Velasquez is with the aid organization Mercy Corps in Beirut. Thank you very much for your time.

VELASQUEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.