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Beirut Blast Cripples an Educational and Cultural Capital

“All of the sudden, the world went dark and I woke up in another room.” That was Najwa Amin’s experience of the Beirut blast on Tuesday evening, which has killed more than 149 people, wounded more than 6,000, and left an estimated 300,000 people homeless in the Lebanese capital.

Amin, a philosophy teacher at a private school in Beirut, was one of the many eyewitnesses to the huge explosion that destroyed the city’s seaport and half of the city that along with the rest of the country has been suffering from harsh economic conditions and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Beirut is a publishing, cultural, medical and educational center, rich with some of the region’s best known universities and hospitals, and a popular tourist destination for Arabs and Westerners alike. Now many of its beloved institutions are reeling from a new round of damage and injuries.

Albert Chamoun, the media advisor at the Lebanese Ministry of Education and Higher Education, told Al-Fanar Media that dozens of  schools and universities in Beirut were damaged from the blast. “The value of losses cannot be presented now,” he said. “But they are significant and amount to millions of dollars.”

Early investigations suggest the explosion was due to highly explosive materials that were confiscated years ago, stored in a warehouse in the port, and then neglected by the government, although some customs officials pleaded for them to be removed.

Citizen videos showed the moment of the explosion and the damage that rippled across the city, smashing glass, blowing doors out of their frames, overturning cars, toppling buildings and sending many people flying through the air. International rescue teams are now helping to dig through rubble to search for missing people.

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The explosion comes at a difficult time for Lebanon. Amid an increase in the number of infections with the novel coronavirus, hospitals that were already overwhelmed with patients now have to treat thousands of wounded. Three Beirut hospitals have had to close due to damage from the blast, according to the nurses’ union and the World Health Organization.

“The number of people injured in the bombing is higher than the coronavirus casualties in Lebanon,” said Amin. “As a child, I lived through part of the civil war and many bloody incidents; I can’t think anything of that was similar to what happened at the time of the explosion. I thought it was doomsday.”

Damages Affect University Campuses

The damage from the blast is estimated at between $10 and $15 billion, Beirut Gov. Marwan Abboud told the Saudi-owned TV station Al-Hadath. A large portion of the food and supplies that keep Lebanon running came through the damaged port, which raises questions about how the Lebanese people will keep getting what they need to live day to day. 

“The property damage is huge. The blast broke the windows of the buildings, stripped off their doors, destroyed their internal rooms and aluminum inside.”

Ahmed Rabah  
Dean of the College of Arts at the Lebanese University

“The number of buildings damaged in Beirut’s explosion is estimated at 5,000,” said Mohammed Khair, Lebanon’s High Relief Commission Major General, in a press statement. He added that engineering companies are surveying which buildings are still at risk of falling. This includes a number of university and school buildings.

So far, the Lebanese University, the country’s only public university, appears to have received the largest share of damage among the city’s educational institutions. The destruction includes the offices of the College of Arts, the Center for Language Sciences and Communication, the Center for Translation and Languages, the Faculty of Information and Economic Sciences, and the glass building of the Central Administration in the museum district, according to Ahmed Rabah, dean of the College of Arts at the Lebanese University.

“The property damage is huge. The blast broke the windows of the buildings, stripped off their doors, destroyed their internal rooms and aluminum inside,” he said. “It also led to the collapse of the balconies of some university buildings, and scattered a large part of their contents, documents and papers.”

Rabah said that the university was already suffering from a stifling financial crisis. “We are awaiting the establishment of a compensation mechanism from the state and the High Relief Commission,” he added.

The situation is similar at many private universities, including campuses of the University of Balamand, Saint-Joseph University, and the Lebanese American University. The American University of Beirut closed its campus for three days to assess the damage and clean up some of the damage.

Volunteers clean a street following Tuesday's blast in Beirut (Photo: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters).
Volunteers clean a street following Tuesday’s blast in Beirut (Photo: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters).

Some “university buildings were severely damaged; most of the classrooms were destroyed, the suspended ceilings fell, and a number of water tanks exploded, as did several of the university hospital’s departments,” said Makram Rabah, a professor of modern history at the American University of Beirut.

There were no fatalities on the campus and injuries were limited to minor wounds as a result of the shattered glass. The explosion happened in the evening when the campus was largely empty.  

Fadlo Khuri, president of the American University of Beirut, said in a message to the university community that “we must begin to heal from yet another great trauma in a year full of trauma, tragedy, and challenges.”

The blast will increase the burdens on educational institutions in Lebanon, which is experiencing the worst economic crisis in years due to the accumulation of public debt that has hit about $93 billion dollars, or more than 170 percent of GDP, at the end of April, according to the Ministry of Finance. The Lebanese pound has collapsed,  losing more than 80 percent of its value against the dollar, which has led to a more than three-fold increase in the prices of consumer goods. (See a related article, “University Professors Feel the Pain of Lebanon’s Worsening Crisis.”)

Beirut schools were also hit by the blast. They include the Riad El-Solh, the Uruguay School in the Achrafieh district that was founded in 1959, and the Collège du Sacré Coeur-Frères in the Gemmayzeh district of Beirut, which was located in an old archaeological building that was completely destroyed.

“Nothing is left of the school. It consisted of four floors, an administration building, and the adjacent church of 1,500 people that was also completely destroyed, alongside the Gemmayzeh Theater. The school’s iron gate, which weighs about 2 tons, flew away from its place,” said Frère Louis, a monk at the school, in an interview. He added that this school is 126 years old, was founded in 1894 and has about 1,300 students. 

Contemplating the Future

The Lebanese government announced a state of emergency in Beirut for two weeks, and declared an official three-day mourning period. Officials also said that an investigation had been launched to find out the cause of the explosion. The Lebanese Supreme Defense Council said those responsible would face “harsh punishment,” although many Lebanese citizens are skeptical whether a government they view as extremely corrupt can investigate its own failings. 

“It is impossible to talk about education in the midst of the devastation that affected the city; hundreds of people are homeless, and it may be necessary to convert many undamaged educational buildings to places to shelter the people that are out in the open.”

Najwa Amin  
A philosophy teacher at a private school in Beirut

“This event is very exceptional, and we have never seen anything like it in Lebanon even in the height of the civil war,” said Rabah, from the American University of Beirut. Its true repercussions are not yet clear, he said, and compensating for all the losses and supporting reconstruction will be difficult. 

Many young people seem desperate.

“I think everything is over. It makes no sense to stay here after all this devastation. Corruption affects everything; people and stone,” said Woody Merheb, a student at the Lebanese University’s School of Business Administration.

The Arab Campaign for Education for All, an independent and non-profit Arab organization, expressed “fears that education in Lebanon will be one of the most noted victims of this crisis, especially as government education suffers from previous crises in providing the required budgets and combating the impact of Covid-19—and these crises are likely to exacerbate under the weight of the repercussions of this disaster.” 

The campaign called on all international organizations and donors to accelerate assistance to Lebanon’s education sector in order to guarantee the right to education in Lebanon and to keep education going. 

But Amin, the philosophy teacher, does not believe that even thinking about the future of education is possible now.

“It is impossible to talk about education in the midst of the devastation that affected the city; hundreds of people are homeless, and it may be necessary to convert many undamaged educational buildings to places to shelter the people that are out in the open,” she said.

“The reality is so tragic that it becomes impossible to imagine tomorrow,” she said.


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