George Sabra. (Courtesy photo)

Topics: Ethical Living | Interview

A Beirut native on the myriad disasters his city has endured

George Sabra, the president of a theology school in the city, says the Aug. 4 explosions were just the latest horror

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On Aug. 4, two deadly explosions occurred in Beirut’s port, leaving at least 180 people dead, more than 6,000 wounded, and  up to 300,000 homeless.

Born and raised in Beirut, George Sabra is the president of the Near East School of Theology. He is now dealing with the aftermath of this tragedy while hoping that his country will be rebuilt amid the pandemic, an economic collapse and the worst explosion in Lebanon’s history.

Sabra spoke with Albina Retyunskikh from his home in Beirut.

Albina Retyunskikh: How is the situation in Beirut?

George Sabra: Well, right now we are having the second wave of the coronavirus. The first was OK, averaging 10-12 new infections per day in the whole country. Now, it’s 500 a day. 

The government is considering another total lockdown of the whole country for the next two weeks. The decision will come out soon (editor’s note: the decision to impose a two-week lockdown was made Wednesday). But you know, with the recent explosion we had in Beirut, it would be very difficult to implement this. People have to go around, they have to repair their homes. So I don’t know if they’re going to go ahead with it. But things are getting out of control and the hospitals are full… We don’t have enough ventilators. It looks pretty bad.

AR: There is a misconception in the West that explosions like the one that happened in Beirut are normal, ordinary. What do you think of that? Were you in Beirut when the explosion happened?

GS: Nothing like this has ever happened before. I mean, we had the civil war for 15 years, but nothing of that sort was ever experienced here. I was in the mountains, about 40 kilometres from Beirut, but we heard it, of course. I got a call from the Near East School of Theology, where I work and live when I’m in Beirut. The person in charge there said that the glass had just been shattered all over the building, on all eight floors. So I immediately came down and spent the night here. Luckily, in my flat, which is in the same building, nothing happened. Some rooms were spared, but most were damaged. The windows, glass doors and wooden doors were totally shattered. We really have no explanation how the pressure of the bomb caused so much damage. Some places were spared, while others were completely destroyed.

AR: What is happening to people who don’t have a home to go back to? 

GS: Some have been taken to hotels, others to monasteries, others have relatives that will take them in. Most Lebanese in the city, especially Christians, originated from villages and towns in the mountains. So they still have relatives or they have homes there. So many of them just move back to their [homes of] origin and villages, but many are homeless so they have to put them somewhere like schools, hotels and monasteries.

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AR: What is your role at the Near East School of Theology, and how does what’s happening impact the school and the students?

GS: I’m the administrator. I’m the president now, but my area is systematic theology. So I don’t teach as much as I used to when I was full-time faculty. But whenever I’m needed, I teach in the field of systematic theology.

And besides the physical damage, of course, which we will repair — we are much better off than other places, because we’re a few kilometres away — we won’t have summer school anymore. We only have a couple faculty members staying here now, like myself and others. Foreign students, especially European and North American, often come for a year to study Christian-Muslim relations and other subjects. This year, along with the pastors who usually take a three-month sabbatical and come here, nobody will be coming. No one wants to be here now. Everything needs to be cancelled. So we lost a lot of participants in many of our activities. I mean, we’re not huge — we have 30-40 local students from the region to begin with. Protestants in the Middle East are a minority anyways. Sometimes, we also run workshops and some students come for a week or two. This year, it all got cancelled.

AR: Has the coronavirus negatively impacted the economy at large as well?

GS: Oh, yes. Before COVID, in October, things started to collapse here economically and financially. We’ve been having problems for years and trying to bury and hide them. But finally things got exposed in October. Corona came, the lockdown on top of this economic collapse, added to it and unemployment skyrocketed. With the closure of shops, hotels and restaurants, tourism was killed. Everything compounded: the financial crisis we had, the coronavirus, and now, the explosion. The Beirut port is destroyed, and as a country, we usually import 90 percent of everything we consume.

AR: How long do you think it’s going to take to rebuild everything?

GS: Well, if they actually start rebuilding — and they haven’t — if they start, and there is will, determination and funds, maybe six months to a year to restore the port to what it used to be. 

AR: Is the Near East School of Theology receiving enough donations after what happened?

GS: As far as our school is concerned, yes. I think the response was very encouraging. Overwhelming, really. We received a lot of donations and we’ll be able to repair. The problem is not so much the funds, as much as finding glass in Lebanon and workers available to do the job. As a country, we receive a lot of donations, but I don’t know, quite frankly, where the money is even going. I know there are planes coming in every day, with food and medical supplies. But it doesn’t solve our economic situation we had before all of this happened.

AR: What would be, in your view, the solution to the economic challenges Lebanon is facing?

GS: Well, we need to put an end to corruption in the country and there needs to be a major change in the ruling class. We also need to get money from the IMF. We need big support in terms of money flowing in the country to revive the economy. But getting into the IMF comes with hard conditions: subsidies for basic things like gasoline and bread would be removed, and that would make basic needs very expensive. Not everyone could be able to afford that. But it really looks like it’s the only way.

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Albina Retyunskikh is Broadview’s intern.


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