The offices of Lebanon’s oldest LGBT+ advocacy group were almost destroyed in the devastating Beirut blast, but staff are already back providing vital support to the queer community.
Founded in 2001, Helem is a non-governmental organisation based in Beirut, and is the oldest group in Lebanon fighting for justice and equality for LGBT+ people.
The group promotes awareness of LGBT+ issues in Lebanon and tackles public misinformation and misconceptions, especially in Arabic.
It provides legal advocacy, campaigning against law 534 of the Lebanese penal code, which states that “unnatural sexual intercourse” is punishable by up to one year imprisonment, and runs health initiatives, raising awareness of HIV/AIDS, STIs and trying to get LGBT+ sexual health on the Lebanese political agenda.
On Tuesday, 4 August, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate which had been unsafely stored at Beirut’s port for six years detonated, resulting in a devastating explosion leaving at least 200 people dead and thousands injured, according to the BBC.
The disaster has also sparked anti-government protests, as Beirut residents take to the streets to criticise the official response in the aftermath of the explosion.
The Helem offices are located in Mar Mikhael, one of the city’s two queer neighbourhoods alongside Gemmayze. Both neighbourhoods were less that a mile from the centre of the blast.
Many of the buildings in the queer hub of the city were reduced to rubble, and the Helem offices were severely damaged, although luckily, none of the advocacy group’s staff were in the office at the time.
Helem’s community and services centers were both heavily damaged in the catastrophe that hit Beirut on August 4. Our centers were less than 700 meters away from the blast but thankfully no one was in them at the time of the explosion and our team was not seriously injured
— Helem (@HelemLebanon) August 11, 2020
Helem executive director Tarek Zeidan told the Los Angeles Blade: “You can imagine how close we were. Nothing much of inside the centre remains: Doors, windows, fixtures, furniture, everything was blown out.
He added: “[Some staff] had to be taken to the hospital that night for their wounds to be stitched, but thankfully no one lost their life.”
But on Facebook, Zeidan described how the community was pulling together to support each other and Helem, and how Helem is doing everything it can to provide services to queer Beirutis in crisis.
At the time of the blast, he said he had been sent photos of the offices in ruins. When he managed to make it there two days later, he said: “I was bracing myself for a second emotional breakdown.
“The team and I have worked night and day for years now in order to have a community centre we can be proud of and they told me that nothing remains.”
He continued: “Nowhere could you see the government in Mar Mikhael, not a single aid worker or person in uniform in sight, and even though I already knew it, seeing how we have been first attacked and then utterly abandoned still filled me with rage and dread… I finally reached Helem and walked inside.
“The centre looked different from the pics they sent me… The floors were not dirty, they were swept clean and the couches dusted and packed neatly in the meeting room.
“The kitchen was functional and smelled of coffee and the offices had all of the files and folders back neatly on the shelves. No dust or glass to be seen anywhere and the stench of rust absent.
“Inside the centre, the staff and about a dozen volunteers were conversing and joking, having waltzed into the doorless centre and begun cleaning and rebuilding the day before and early this morning.
“I had no idea they were doing that, no one told me. I didn’t mobilise or organise anyone, I didn’t ask anyone to show up. I didn’t call for a meeting or ask for a favour… They walked in and cleaned and fixed and hammered and organised as I stood there feeling completely useless and weeping like an idiot.”
This morning I cried for the last time. I pulled myself out of bed and carried my body to Helem, our community center…
Zeidan added: “I cannot explain what it feels like to be lifted when you buckle at the knees by the very same people you feel responsible for lifting.”
The Helem leader told the Los Angeles Blade that staff and volunteers were already providing vital services in the community.
He said: “Many of our volunteers are out on the streets cleaning up debris or assisting the makeshift community kitchens.
“We’ve dedicated funds to support people who are seeking shelter from the community, particularly because so many places are unliveable, even if they are structurally sound.”
A post on Helem’s Facebook read: “We inform LGBT+ people who were effected by the Beirut explosion that our hotline has become dedicated to receiving your calls (between 8am and 5pm) and our team is primed to provide aid.
“We’re here, and we’re offering all we can.”
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