USA

Metro Detroiters helping Lebanon with millions of dollars in equipment, supplies

Saddened and shocked by an explosion that tore through Beirut, Arab Americans and others in metro Detroit are mobilizing to raise money and send equipment to help a city that faces one of its biggest crises in recent years.

Michigan has a sizable Lebanese American population of about 57,000 people and others with roots in the Middle East who have ties to Beirut, where a blast in a port area last week killed more than 170 and injured over 6,000 with hundreds of thousands now homeless.  

In Southfield at World Medical Relief, a $500,000 container of medical supplies — wheelchairs, crutches, surgical equipment among them — was packed this week and will be shipping soon to Lebanon. It's one of several containers of supplies worth a total of $5 to $6 million the international charity plans to send in coming weeks, said World Medical Relief President and CEO George Samson.

In Clinton Township, at St. Sharbel Maronite Catholic Church, the largely Lebanese American congregation has raised $14,000 as of Wednesday for the charity Caritas, said its pastor, Chorbishop Alfred Badawi.

In Dearborn Heights, at the Islamic Institute of America, the mosque's congregation has raised more than $110,000 for victims in Lebanon, said Imam Hassan Al-Qazwini. 

And in Dearborn, the Arab American social services group ACCESS said a national group it created, the Center for Arab American Philanthrophy will match 100% of donations and an additional 50 cents for every dollar to the Lebanese Red Cross. 

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There are other efforts across the region and also individuals helping their own family members and loved ones affected by the explosion that has further crippled Lebanon's already struggling economy and political system. Vigils have been held in metro Detroit for the victims, including in Birmingham and one planned for Thursday evening at St. Sharbel.

In addition to local efforts, the U.S. government, through U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said it will give $15 million in humanitarian assistance.

"The people of Lebanon are suffering," said pastor Badawi of St. Sharbel in Clinton Township. "People have no homes, they've been sheltering and sleeping in cars, some are in the streets, families left scrambling for food. The nation was already grappling with a severe, collapsing economy, and a government in shambles."

Speaking during a fundraising event broadcast online last week, Imam Al-Qazwini told the congregation: "We need to show that our community is generous, is concerned, and cares about people everywhere. ... Do not let this community down. They are expecting us to help."

Al-Qazwini said metro Detroit is known for its large Arab American and Muslim population that helps people in need. 

"They're expecting us to help," he said. "Let's be up to the challenge, let's be up to our reputation, and let's step up the plate and give."

The mosque is accepting donations for Lebanon through Aug 21. 

Majd Faraj, a native of Lebanon who's a second-year medical student at Oakland University's William Beaumont School of Medicine, had already mobilized before the explosion to help Lebanon, given its economic problems and medical needs. He was working with World Medical Relief and last month he created a GoFundMe page to help raise money for supplies. 

After the explosion, the donations poured in, with more than $71,000 raised so far. 

"It's incredible to see how many want to help," he said. 

When Faraj, 23, heard about the blast last week, "I remember screaming" as I saw the video footage, he said. "I called my parents in Beirut. It was one of the worst moments I felt before realizing they were safe."

Faraj said that the supplies they are donating with the help of World Medical Relief are going to Rafic Hariri University Hospital in Beirut. 

One challenge is that because Lebanon is divided along sectarian and political lines, some are reluctant to donate money through the government or certain groups. 

"We don't trust the Lebanese government," said Chorbishop Alfred Badawi of St. Sharbel in Clinton Township. "We ask countries to send aid to organizations, not to the government. It's a very corrupt government ... they are under Hezbollah."

Majed Moughni, a Dearborn attorney of Lebanese descent, said a local restaurant has been donating proceeds to help victims and some set up makeshift lemonade stands to raise money. 

"It's heartbreaking to watch what was once the 'Paris of the Middle East' be disseminated before our very eyes," Moughni said. "The people need to retake control of their government and rid it of all corruptions."

 Michigan has about 57,000 residents with roots in Lebanon, according to 2018 Census data.

The Lebanese American Christian population historically settled on Detroit's east side, with many moving later to the Grosse Pointes and Macomb County. There are four Lebanese Catholic Maronite churches in southeastern Michigan, in Detroit, Clinton Township, Livonia, and Flint.  

The Lebanese American Shia population is more settled in Dearborn and Dearborn Heights, where they have established mosques and have members on the city councils. A former resident of Dearborn, Nabih Berri, is now the speaker of the parliament in Lebanon, an influential power broker. The region also has a number of Lebanese American Sunnis. 

"Michigan is home to the largest Lebanese community in the US, and Beirut’s devastating explosion has left many scared for their loved ones," Governor Gretchen Whitmer wrote on Twitter. "I stand with my friends who are calling for relief and assistance to be quickly deployed to the people of Lebanon."

Some in metro Detroit had friends and family members affected by the explosion. 

Chorbishiop Badawi's niece is a nurse at St. George Hospital in Beirut. She survived the blast, but four nurses on her floor were killed, he said. The hospital is now closed. A Troy resident, Israa Al Seblani, was captured in a viral video taken during the blast during a wedding video shoot, reported WXYZ-TV. And the home of an Oakland University professor was damaged by the explosion, wrote a university official. 

Wally Jadan, a board member of World Medical Relief and the CEO of MEA TV, a Middle Eastern media outlet based in Troy, said many in Michigan "are really heartbroken."

On Saturday, a group of about 40 volunteers at World Medical Relief broke down crying when they heard the Lebanese national anthem being played, Jadan said. 

"It's not just people from Lebanon, the whole Middle Eastern community is affected," Jadan said. "Every Arab country wanted to be like Lebanon, and see what happened to Lebanon now after all the suffering of the past five to six years."

Despite the challenges and divisions, Lebanese Americans said they hope this traumatic event can be a catalyst for change and unity. 

"There's a lot of emotions," said Faraj, the medical student at Oakland University helping organize relief efforts. "The explosion was extremely avoidable. This wasn't like a natural disaster. It was out of negligence, lack of proper leadership, that's where the real anger comes from. ... There is an element of despair we saw in the community that we're trying to change. But this thing really nudged everybody to see a change is coming. People are dropping off medical supplies, people are texting me right and left who want to help and send supplies."

The Associated Press contributed to this report 

Contact Niraj Warikoo: nwarikoo@freepress.com or 313-223-4792. Twitter @nwarikoo

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