World Humanitarian Day: For me, work should have a sense of purpose

A food distribution by CARE and partner organisations in the municipality of Sin el-Fil, Beirut (photo taken by Patricia Khoder)

Patricia Khoder, a journalist and humanitarian worker with CARE International in Beirut, describes what it’s like when your whole life is shaken by a disaster – and how, as a humanitarian, you find the strength to go on

When the explosion in Beirut happened, we thought it was a plane, a rocket attack. So we went to the corridor like we used to do in the war. We heard two blasts then it ended, so we went out.

I live in Beirut, 3.5km from the port (where the explosion happened), near a hospital. I saw people with blood running into hospital. The neighbourhood was full of broken glass. It was full of people who were weeping and crying in the street: my neighbours…

I took a taxi to the port area. I was among the first to get there. The closest neighbourhood to the port is a gentrified area, with pubs and restaurants; but also many old people who don’t have a lot of money left. The area hit by the blast is among the poorest in Beirut.

When I got there, there were still people under the rubble, still people searching for their loved ones.

This area was built with the port, so it is one of the oldest of the city with many buildings from the 19th century. I am afraid we would lose a lot of them and the city won’t be the same. I pass by these areas at least three times a day, this is where I have so many memories.

When I saw the destruction I thought to myself, the city has gone and tomorrow morning there will be no Beirut. And I kept asking myself, when you don’t have a city, where do you go? I still ask myself this question. When you lose your city, where do you go? How do you survive?

I am from Beirut, and I lived during the war in the Lebanese capital. I always felt like every stone in Beirut as well as the sea belongs to me, because it’s my city. Now it doesn’t exist anymore. Even though we’ve been through a war we never had this kind of destruction.

And now it’s like when you mourn someone: I am mourning my city. I’m angry, sad, still in shock and I cannot cry.

The first five days we were all in shock. Then I started calling friends and acquaintances to see if they were okay, and I started hearing every day that somebody I know is dead, or is wounded. I have a colleague whose grandmother and uncle were buried under the rubble, but they were found alive. Almost everyone knows someone who has died or been wounded. It’s a small city, Beirut, and this disaster has happened in my neighbourhood.

One-third of people who died are Syrians. We have migrant workers too who have died. Can you imagine if you are fleeing the war in Syria, and you end up dying in rubble in Lebanon? Or that you came to Lebanon leaving your family to work because you badly need the money and then you die in a blast?

I think that you feel guilty because you survived – when they tell you there are 6,000 wounded, and you know it’s not just wounded, they are heavily injured. And you know deep down that it could have been you, but you were lucky to survive.

My only reflex when things are bad is to work. For me, as a humanitarian and a journalist, it’s very important. Somebody has to witness and to tell the stories of people, so they won’t be forgotten.

In my job with CARE International, I have to tell the story, put people in contact, be useful and contribute by the things I am doing to raise funds to Lebanon. The people need everything, help with food, schools for the kids, cash for rent, help to rebuild and repair homes before winter. I’m going to the field nearly every day– all I see is destruction and poverty that started to strike Lebanon 10 months ago and worsening with weeks passing by. And we need as well to create jobs, to get people on their feet again.

CARE International was responding from the very beginning, in 40 hours after the blast exactly. We have Lebanese partner organisations with whom we are distributing food. We have many projects in the pipeline: a project for migrant workers, and providing cash to people in need – all working alongside our local Lebanese organisations.

Lebanese people are courageous and strong. From the second or third day, people came from all over the country, to pull up the rubble. They came with food. I’m proud to see all this courage and solidarity; proud but very sad.

We always counted on ourselves especially during the war but in this disaster, we cannot do it on our own.

For me, work should have a sense of purpose. It depends on the purpose you choose. I like to tell stories and can’t stand any kind of injustice, whether I am in Lebanon or abroad. And despite all the ugly things we could live or witness, I still believe in human beings. But of course working in Lebanon, helping support my city and my fellow citizens gives all this work a different – a bigger – dimension.

I always wanted a job with a purpose. I’ve always been a journalist and later a communications consultant for international institutions. I need to feel that the work I do is useful for others. So now I have the chance through my work and my knowledge to support Lebanon, my country. And this gives me a sense of purpose. So please help me support my country. Donate to help the Lebanese people get on their feet again.

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.