August 11, 2020 at 10:03 am PDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Beirut explosion nearly destroys LGBTQ group’s offices
A massive explosion that destroyed large swaths of Beirut on Aug. 4, 2020, seriously damaged the offices of Helem, a Lebanese LGBTQ advocacy group. (Photo courtesy of Tarek Zeidan/Helem)

A massive explosion that killed more than 200 people in Beirut on Aug. 4 nearly destroyed the offices of Lebanon’s oldest LGBTQ advocacy group.

Helem’s offices are located less than a mile from the city’s port where the explosion took place. Helem Executive Director Tarek Zeidan on Monday told the Los Angeles Blade during a Skype interview the blast damaged buildings up to 10 miles away.

“You can imagine how close we were,” said Zeidan. “Nothing much of inside the center remains: Doors, windows, fixtures, furniture, everything was blown out.”

Zeidan said the explosion injured several Helem staffers.

“They had to be taken to the hospital that night for their wounds to be stitched, but thankfully no one lost their life,” he said.

Helem was founded in 2001.

Its offices are located in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh neighborhoods, which Zeidan described to the Blade as “the most vibrant … most LGBT-friendly neighborhoods in the entire Arab World, much less in Lebanon and in the city.” Zeidan said a lot of bars, coffee shops, art galleries and nightclubs were located in the area.

“All of that has been destroyed,” Zeidan told the Blade. “The entire area has been brought down.”

Zeidan said most of the buildings in the area that remain standing are not structurally sound. Zeidan added “nothing inside” Helem’s offices “is salvageable.”

The massive explosion that destroyed large swaths of Beirut, Lebanon, on Aug. 4, 2020, seriously damaged the offices of Helem, a Lebanese LGBTQ advocacy group. (Photo courtesy of Tarek Zeidan/Helem)

Zeidan and his partner live more than a mile away from the blast’s epicenter.

Zeidan told the Blade the explosion caused “one entire side of the house to sort of implode inwards with all the glass” and “the living room fixtures blew inside as well.” Zeidan said his partner was in the room “that sort of exploded, but thankfully he wasn’t hurt.”

“I was not in the house,” said Zeidan. “I just came back and saw the carnage and went down and saw the same.”

Initial reports indicate a fire that ignited more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s port since 2013 sparked the blast. The explosion took place against the backdrop of Lebanon’s economic and political crises that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated.

Zeidan on July 22 was in Helem’s offices when he spoke with the Blade in a Zoom call about the impact the crises and the pandemic has had on Lebanon’s LGBTQ community.

“You’re not exaggerating when you say things are really bad,” said Zeidan.

Zeidan noted to the Blade that Helem at the beginning of the pandemic launched food and clothing drives.

Zeidan during the Zoom call also said Helem was working to create what he described as a “community kitchen” to provide people in need with hot, nutritional meals twice a week. Zeidan also said Helem worked with the American University of Beirut to create a clinic within its medical center that would provide free diagnostic services to LGBTQ people.

Helem is among the organizations that participated in last October’s anti-government protests that forced then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign. Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his Cabinet on Monday resigned amid growing outrage over the blast.

Zeidan is among those who police tear gassed on Sunday during anti-government protests in Beirut. Zeidan’s voice was hoarse when he spoke with the Blade on Monday.

“Yesterday it wasn’t outrage,” he said. “It was rage. It was rage against everybody: Not just the people responsible, not just the people that ran the port, not just the political sponsors. It was rage against subsequent governments, of subsequent bad governance and corruption and murder and theft and the deliberate impoverishment of the Lebanese people and the fattening of the pockets of the political elite and ruling class.”

Zeidan told the Blade the Lebanese people have launched their own relief efforts without assistance from their country’s government. Zeidan said Helem volunteers and staff “immediately joined” them.    

“Many of our volunteers are out on the streets cleaning up debris or assisting the makeshift community kitchens,” he said. “We’ve dedicated funds to support people who are seeking shelter from the community, particularly because so many places are unlivable, even if they are structurally sound.”

OutRight Action International launches Helem fundraiser

Zeidan said Helem will continue to collect food and distribute it to people who are in need. OutRight Action International has also launched a fundraiser to help Helem and members of Lebanon’s LGBTQ community recover from the blast.

“We are going to survive and the center will survive,” Zeidan told the Blade.

“We’re worried about the community and our friends and neighbors and people in the heart of the city,” he added.

OutRight Action International notes 100 percent of the fundraiser’s proceeds “will be passed on to Helem to use for the support of the LGBTIQ community, the center’s relief efforts, and any other urgent needs on the ground.” OutRight Action International Executive Director Jessica Stern on Monday reiterated her organization’s support of Helem.

“Helem, the oldest LGBTIQ organization in Lebanon, was severely damaged in the recent explosion in Beirut. Helem is working to rebuild, while also struggling to support countless LGBTIQ people who have been left homeless, and engage in city-wide relief efforts,” Stern told the Blade in a statement. “OutRight’s mission is to work with local LGBTIQ organizations around the world to promote LGBTIQ equality.”

“When crisis strikes, it is our duty and honor to do what we can to support local activists,” added Stern.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Los Angeles Blade. Follow Michael

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