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(HyeTert Papers) Lebanese-Armenians After the Beirut Blast: A Fight for Survival

Yeghia Tashjian

On August 4, 2020, around 6 pm a huge chemical explosion shook Beirut and the surrounding cities. I still remember the scene, we were on the balcony and I was participating in an online summer school program where a wave of the sound of the explosions shook the building but the last one was so strong that the whole neighborhood shook. For a moment we thought Israel bombed our building, the street was covered with blood, smashed doors and windows and people crying. We started to make phone calls checking each other and after few minutes we realized the smoke coming from the Port. The Beirut port was no more. But the destruction was not limited to the Port, the areas surrounding the explosion site, along the famous cosmopolitan “Armenia street”, populated by Armenians and other Christian communities, from Mar Mkhayel to Nor Hadjen, Bourj Hamoud and Achrafieh were heavily damaged, bars, restaurants, shops, business places, and industries and residential areas completely or partially damaged. As a result, dozens died and thousands were injured. The man-made tragedy severely shook the Armenian community which lost its industrial and middle-class business heart. However, despite the humanitarian and relief work mobilized by the community leadership, the ongoing financial meltdown didn’t provide enough oxygen for the shrinking Armenian middle class.

It is important to note that the community had experienced many crisis-response management situations during the past, such as the establishment of “COMARES” (Lebanese-Armenian Rehabilitation Central Commission) in 1978 to aid the Lebanese-Armenians during the civil war (1975-1990), and the “Syrian-Armenian Relief Commission” in 2012 to aid the Syrian-Armenian refugees who took refuge in Lebanon. The coordination and unity between different Armenian political parties, denominations, and organizations was an effective model that was later adopted during various challenging stages. 

This report will reflect and analyze the political, and socio-economic, and humanitarian situation of Armenians during and after the Beirut blast amid the severe financial crisis the community is facing in Lebanon and how “communitarianism” mobilized the response and relief efforts to help the community. Communitarianism that is the sense and commitment or sometimes the obligation/duty of belonging to a community unified by its history, language, destiny has helped Armenians to organize united fronts in responding to different crises such as the pandemic, and Lebanon’s financial breakdown, and the Beirut blast. 

The “October Revolt”, Pandemic, Ongoing Financial Crisis, the Beirut Blast and Communitarianism 

In October 2019, as a result of the government’s decision to increase prices of certain commodities, protests started in Beirut which quickly expanded into a country-wide condemnation of the sectarian-political rule and endemic corruption. The Lebanese system is perceived as exploited by the current Lebanese political elites, many of whom are Lebanese Civil War-era sectarian warlords who still occupy key positions of power and enjoy parliamentary immunity and amnesty against accountability. As a result, of the nationwide protests, the government collapsed, and as violence intensified banks closed their doors for a week. When the real-world economy tanked, the banks were left exposed, and customers panicked. As they rushed to withdraw their money, the banks imposed stern capital controls. Now, ordinary Lebanese do not know whether they will ever get their money back. Moreover, the dollar shortage led to an increase in its value and a consequent decrease in the lira’s, reducing the value of the currency most Lebanese earn in.

Major investors and politicians started transferring their money outside the country. As a result, the subsequent dollar shortage further affected the economy, as import businesses and citizens became unable to acquire US dollars at the official rate, a black market emerged. The US dollars which were equivalent to around 1500 Lebanese Lira (official rate), now is valued at around 22,500LL in the black market. In addition to hyperinflation, unemployment, and the rise of poverty, there is a sharp shortage in electricity supplies, medicine, and fuel oil and gas. Lebanese are literally on the edge of starvation. 

From the first day of the crisis, the Armenian community leadership, including political parties, charitable organizations and churches, started to mobilize resources to fight the crisis on multiple fronts: the Covid-19 pandemic, the financial crisis, and the Beirut blast.

Fighting the pandemic was not easy, however. Armenian organizations were among the first to raise alarm. Some Armenian neighborhoods imposed lockdown measures much earlier than others. In late February 2020, in order to fightthe COVID-19 pandemic and mobilize the community, the ARF Central Committee established the “Corona Crisis Committee Lebanon” after meeting with the Armenian social and health institutions. The main task of the committee was to raise awareness on social media about the dangers of the pandemic and help the infected Armenians. Soon, there was coordination among all Armenian political parties, the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU), community organizations and churches, and the Corona committee. Thanks to these efforts, many Armenians were admitted to public hospitals free of charge. From March to June 2020 the committee had distributed face masks and anti-bacterial cleaning packages. Armenian neighborhoods and institutions were cleaned and disinfected on weekly basis. To help people quarantine during the lockdown, the committee distributed 2100 food stamps and more than 2500 food boxes and medical aid. Health clinics were opened in Armenian community centers. The committee also provided free housing to Armenian nurses and doctors working on Covid-19 cases and more than 7000 PCR tests were conducted in Armenian neighborhoods free of charge. The youth and doctors were mobilized to help the elderly families who needed assistance. The community lost many of its members, including Dr. Sahak Keshishian, one of the co-founders of the committee, who was helping infected community members, died of Covid-19.

The financial crisis hit hard the industrial and business center of the Armenian populated areas. Many Armenian families are forced to immigrate and the middle class of the community is on the edge of extinction. To address the needs of the community, the Armenian political parties, organizations, and churches mobilized their resources to help needy families. This humanitarian mobilization was later intensified with the blast in Beirut Port which devastated the Armenian neighborhoods and industrial sectors in eastern Beirut and the surrounding areas. 

Armenian benevolent and socio-medical institutions and organizations also played important role in addressing the needs of the community.

Already, before the crisis, the Armenian Parliamentary block led by the ARF implemented several social and education projects for Armenians. This included such assistance as scholarships for Armenian university students, covering church fees for marriages and providing financial incentives to families to have more than three children. As the financial crisis worsened and with the devastation of Beirut after the blast, ARF branches in Armenia, the USA, Canada, Western Europe, and Australia mobilized and sent humanitarian aid, food boxes, and collected money to help needy Armenian families in Lebanon.

The Social Service Committee of the Social-Democratic Hunchagian Party and the executive council of the Armenian Educational Benevolent Union (AEBU) distributed food boxes from New Year 2020.  In April 2020 alone, 1500 food boxes were distributed. Immediately after the blast, AEBU transformed its Socio-Medical Dispensary Clinic into an urgent care facility, where medical professionals and volunteers treated and helped the injured. 

Immediately after the Beirut port blast, the “AGBU Lebanon Disaster Response Unit” was established and a group of volunteers and scouts visited homes to assess and report the damages. The volunteer groups were divided into various sub-committees and started providing emergency assistance focusing on three areas: food distribution, medical and psychosocial assistance. The Executive Director of AGBU Lebanon Arine Ghazarian reported that food packages and cash money to needy Armenian families were distributed. As Armenians began to experience restrictions on cash access and faced unemployment or business shortfalls, AGBU Lebanon took action by establishing a process for addressing the growing food shortages efficiently and equitably. The program, which started with 100 families in January 2020, now targets 1200 Armenian families or around 4500 individuals all across Lebanon. AGBU also implementes a “Hot Meal Distribution program”, assisting 500 people (3 times a week), both Armenians and non-Armenians.  

The Howard Karagheusian Commemorative Corporation (HKCC), Jinishian Memorial Program in Lebanon (JMPL), and the Armenian Relief Cross in Lebanon (ARCL) played an important role in addressing the social, financial, and medical needs of Armenians and non-Armenians. It is important to note that despite each being a separate institution, there was strong networking and cooperation between them. 

Finally, the church and religious institutions worked independently and through their vast networks, paid special attention to the community’s educational, social, and economic needs. The Armenian Apostolic Prelacy in Lebanon has been one of the leading forces in humanitarian efforts. The Prelacy used to have dozens of schools and community centers under its umbrella, with the shrinking number of Armenians, now only 4 schools operate within its jurisdiction. Already before the financial crisis and protest movements, on September 9, 2019, the Prelacy executive council organized domestic fundraising where 124 institutions and wealthy Armenians donated $131,250 to cover the tuition of students in need in the Armenian Apostolic schools. As the financial crisis intensified, both the Republic of Artsakh and Hayastan All-Armenian Fund (Himnatram) sent financial aid to Armenian schools in Lebanon to cover the tuition of 5020 Armenian students according to their financial needs. The Prelacy also distributed cash money to 2000 needy Armenian families. Often supported by the Vatican and individual donors from the Diaspora and Lebanon, starting from January 2020, the Armenian Catholic church has been distributing monthly food boxes for 800 families. While its preventive healthcare center in Bourj Hammoud is distributing medical aid to patients and a hot meal to needy families. Similarly, the Armenian Evangelical community mobilized its resources on the ground. Where its Social Action’s Committee started distributing food portions, medical aid for needy 100 families. In time the number increased to 350 families. The catastrophe of the Beirut blast hit the community hard where most of its educational and religious institutions endured heavy material damages. The Armenian Evangelical community made an initial assessment and estimated the cost of the damage to its institutions at about $600,000. About 90% of it was fundraised and part of it covered by the Armenian Missionary Association of America (AMAA). 

The experience of “COMARES” during the civil war was adopted by the community to face the new challenges.  The “Lebanese-Armenian Rehabilitation Commission” was established on August 12, 2021, to rebuilt the damaged Armenian houses and shops. The commission aimed to recover and facilitate the rehabilitation of the Armenians. It consisted of representatives from the Armenian Apostolic, Catholic, and Evangelical communities, Armenian political parties, and humanitarian organizations. It is being operated under the leadership of the Catholicosate of Cilicia. As such, a group of engineers visited damaged areas and assessed the Armenian damaged properties: 2800 houses and 1500 businesses and shops were damaged. As a result, Armenian families were compensated, doors and windows renovated. Meanwhile, the Lebanese state was completely absent. Wealthy businessmen from Armenia and Russia financially compensated those who lost their relatives during the blast. Fundraisings were organized in the US, Europe, and Australia to send money to assist the committee efforts. 

Given that Lebanon is sinking into a severe financial crisis, which may take years to witness any tangible recovery and amid fears of the rise of violence, many Armenians are applying for an immigration visa or repatriating to Armenia. While those who are stuck in Lebanon are experiencing daily challenges of survival. 

Assessment and Future Scenarios

Lebanon is enduring a severe and prolonged economic depression. The World Bank estimates that in 2020 real GDP contracted by 20.3 percent, As conditions in the financial sector continue to deteriorate, the World Bank Lebanon Economic Monitor (LEM) released in June 2021, the economic and financial crisis is likely to rank in the top 10, possibly top 3, most severe crises episodes globally since the mid-nineteenth century. Moreover, the inability and the absence of a fully functioning executive authority will further threaten the dire socio-economic conditions and the fragile social peace with no clear turning point on the horizon.

As I am writing this article, the Lebanese are waiting for hours in front of gas stations to fuel their car, fighting over a piece of bread or milk, or begging the pharmacist to provide them with powder milk for their kids or medicines. Fresh graduates, doctors, and professors are leaving the country, the traditional middle class is evaporating, while a new middle class is rising whose salary is based on “fresh dollars”. This emerging new middle class does not have a significant role in the community, since most active community members who are working in community institutions still are being paid at official 1500LL salary at best around 3900LL. That is the salary of ordinary Lebanese these days ranges from $40-100 a month at best. 

Armenian political clubs (agumps) have turned into community welfare centers where they are providing daily meals, rents, medical needs to the people. All these efforts have been possible with the gracious donation of the community’s donors and benefactors from outside Lebanon. The Armenian Prelacy, Catholic, and Evangelical churches decided to cease all the tuition payments for the students or pay a small symbolic amount for the academic year 2020-2021, however, will they sustain in the next academic year? Already many teachers have not been paid for months and others are demanding an increase in their salaries. 

Lebanon is now in dire straits. According to a warning by the World Bank in late 2020, poverty in Lebanon was expected to rise from 30 to 50 percent; that figure is expected to rise way beyond the halfway mark once the effect of the devaluation of the currency and joblessness created by the pandemic is factored in. The poor and the lower-middle class are in urgent need of pecuniary support. They are the worst-hit and, unlike the middle classes, cannot afford a veneer of respectability. They are forced to line up outside soup kitchens, even elbow each other, to get their hands on a loaf of bread.

The Armenian community is shrinking and its political, economic and physical existence is dependent on the new political-economic system emerging in Lebanon. However, will the community survive until then? Will the traditional middle-class which was the backbone of communitarianism completely disappear? Will individualism, the survival of the individual, replace communitarianism, the main dynamo pushing for group-working and grassroots mobilization? Answering these questions is painful, but it is clear that the dynamic Lebanese-Armenian community, once known as the heart of the Armenian Diaspora, is giving its last breath, waiting for a miracle to save Lebanon. 

Yeghia Tashjian is a regional analyst and researcher on public policy and international affairs. A graduate of the American University of Beirut, he is the founder of the New Eastern Politics forum/blog and serves as the Regional Officer of Women in War, a gender-based think tank. He is a regular contributor to various local and regional newspapers and broadcast media.

Feature Photo by Rita Avedanian

HyeTert would like to thank Prof. Hratch Tchilingirian for his comments and suggestions.

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