BEIRUT: The death of Ali Abdullah Monday provoked an immediate outpouring of online mourning from those American University of Beirut students and staff who knew the Bliss Street regular well.
For some, his death has served as a wake-up call, coming as it did amid one of the fiercest storms Lebanon has witnessed in decades, prompting a discussion over the lack of state support for homeless people in Lebanon, including the provision of any official shelters.
The creator of a Facebook group, Fighting Homelessness in Beirut – which already has over 800 likes – Michel Khoury, is conducting an online survey into attitudes surrounding homelessness in Lebanon, and gauging how best to respond.
Another student, Karim Badra, wanted to help in an immediate way, handing out blankets to other homeless people in Hamra, angered as he was by Abdullah’s death.
“I didn’t really do much, it was more of a cathartic thing: I wanted to go down to the street to help whomever I could,” Badra said.
Now he is coordinating efforts with the Anti-Racism Movement, which is collecting donations to distribute to anyone in need during the harsh winter, including refugees.
Items – anything from blankets and sleeping bags to clothes and household items – are being collected at the Nasawiya cafe in Mar Mikhael before being distributed to those who are in need and those whose houses or shelters have been damaged during the storm.
Farah Salka, from ARM, said that the storm provided an opportunity to call for more donations.
“These sorts of campaigns gain momentum at weird times,” she said. “Because of the storm it’s now easier to talk to people and ask people to donate.”
So far they have been distributing warm bedding and canned goods to people whose houses have been severely damaged, “houses that have no protection,” she said.
Salka said the center would continue receiving and distributing donations “as long as people need them.”
As the harsh winter continues, and the number of Syrian refugees continues to rise, it doesn’t appear this need will diminish any time soon. While numerous NGOs are working, alongside the Social Affairs Ministry, to provide for refugees, there are always gaps in aid provision with a refugee population as large as Lebanon’s.
ARM has, until now, been distributing only in the capital, but Salka hopes that they will soon be able to operate in Sidon also.
FoodBlessed, a group of three volunteers who help to distribute food to those in need, has also been working with Nasawiya this month.
Maya Terro, one of the group’s co-founders, explained that FoodBlessed works by creating links between those NGOs already working with people in need, and companies with corporate social responsibility commitments.
They also accept surplus food from events such as weddings, which is then distributed to local charities, and packages of goods, donated by companys’ staff members.
“We try and stress that people are not hungry only at Christmas or Ramadan, but all the time,” Terro said.
Although systems are in place to support refugees in Lebanon, there is no official support for homeless people, and Badra hopes that recent events may help mobilize people to work to provide assistance to those who need it in a nuanced way, rather than simply throwing aid at those in need.
“I’m glad people are talking about the issue now,” the political sciences major said, but “one thing we have to do is that we have to understand who these people are in these positions.”
Working alongside more organized groups was important, he added, as was having a level of “empathy to talk to them and understand them.”
This article was amended on Wednesday, January 09 2013
This article has been amended to correct the spelling of Michel Khoury's name.