Beirut (CNN)Inside a tiny middle school classroom, Georgette Abushahla has crammed all of her life’s belongings. Two small sofas double as beds for her and her husband.
“Right now, I don’t have a home because it was destroyed in the port blast,” she told CNN, referring to the explosion that ripped through Beirut’s harbor last August. “What can I say? I thank God for what we have.” Pots and pans sit idle on shelves meant for schoolbooks. She has no kitchen in the closed school and relies on Nation Station, a grassroots charity, to bring her hot meals three times a week. The group’s young and trendy volunteers zip around on orange mopeds, knocking on the doors of their neighborhood’s neediest and most vulnerable. The Nation Station kitchen in Jeitaoui Achrafieh, on May 27.Izzo, 78, greets her visitors with a smile and the bustle expected of a generous host. Read More”I am sorry! We have no power. I don’t have a generator. Please come in,” she said. Lebanon’s national grid is failing, leaving the poorest without electricity for hours every day. “I tell them may God give them strength. Knock on wood,” Izzo said as she emphatically knocked on her table and gestured at the volunteers, “I wouldn’t eat without them.” Nation Station co-founder Josephine Abou Abdo said the group started when she and a few friends began handing out donations from an abandoned gas station two days after the port blast. Now, nine months later, that gas station has been transformed into a community kitchen that supports about 1,000 families. 'We eat and drink from garbage'“We thought that slowly, slowly after the blast the need would diminish, but to our surprise, with the economic situation, the need actually increased,” Abou Abdo explained. Lebanon is facing economic collapse. Since late 2019, the country’s currency has lost over 90% of its value, and people’s life savings are locked up in banks that have imposed discretionary capital controls. The financial meltdown has pushed half of Lebanon’s population below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. Political turmoil has exacerbated the crisis. The government resigned after hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate — neglected and mismanaged for years by Beirut port officials — exploded, leaving more than 200 people dead and thousands more injured. The heart of the city still stands disfigured with countless buildings damaged and destroyed. After months of political bickering, the ruling elite remain in deadlock over the formation of a new cabinet. Some blame the country’s power sharing system, which allots seats by religious sect, for the gridlock. Photos: Lebanon in crisisA Lebanese protester speaks into a megaphone on December 16 as demonstrators gather near the home of caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Beirut.Hide Caption 1 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisSupporters of Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah and Amal groups throw fireworks towards Lebanese riot police during clashes on December 14 in Beirut.Hide Caption 2 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisAnti-government protesters scuffle with riot police on December 4 in Beirut.Hide Caption 3 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisDemonstrators raise a giant fist sign that bears the Arabic word for “revolution” on November 22 in Martyrs’ Square.Hide Caption 4 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisPeople take part in an Independence Day event on November 22. Lebanon marked 76 years of self-rule, with nationwide festivities organized by anti-government protesters in lieu of a traditional military parade.Hide Caption 5 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisA Lebanese protester kisses the helmet of a riot policeman on November 19 near the parliament headquarters in Beirut.Hide Caption 6 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisCars navigate a flaming barricade set by anti-government protesters in the southern city of Sidon on November 19, ahead of a parliament session.Hide Caption 7 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisA mourner lights a candle at a makeshift memorial where Alaa Abu Fakher was killed by a Lebanese soldier during Tuesday night protests south of Beirut in Khaldeh neighborhood on November 13. Fakher was the first to be killed in direct shooting related to the protests, though there have been four other deaths since the demonstrations began.Hide Caption 8 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisRiot police remove anti-government protesters who were occupying an intersection in Beirut, Lebanon, on Monday, November 4.Hide Caption 9 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisProtesters perch on an overhead road sign in Beirut on November 4.Hide Caption 10 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisPolice move an anti-government protester on Monday.Hide Caption 11 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisProtesters light flares and chant slogans against the Lebanese government on Sunday, November 3.Hide Caption 12 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisAn aerial view shows thousands of Lebanese protesters gathered in Beirut’s downtown district on Sunday.Hide Caption 13 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisSupporters of embattled Lebanese President Michel Aoun take part in a counter-protest near the presidential palace in Baabda on November 3.Hide Caption 14 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisDemonstrators chant slogans during a rally on Sunday.Hide Caption 15 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisAn anti-government protester waves a Lebanese flag as he stands on top of a pile of broken tents in Martyrs’ Square on October 29.Hide Caption 16 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisLebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaks during an address to the nation on October 29. “I can’t hide this from you. I have reached a dead end,” Hariri said in his resignation speech.Hide Caption 17 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisAnti-government protesters celebrate outside the government palace after Hariri announced his resignation.Hide Caption 18 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisHezbollah supporters burn tents in the camp set up by anti-government protesters near the government palace.Hide Caption 19 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisMembers of the Lebanese army, left, help intervene between clashing groups of protesters and counter-protesters on a highway in central Beirut.Hide Caption 20 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisAn armored personnel carrier removes a burning garbage container set alight by anti-government protesters on Monday, October 28.Hide Caption 21 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisAnti-government protesters play a dice game as they block a main highway during during demonstrations.Hide Caption 22 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisProtesters hold hands to form a human chain along a coastal highway near Beirut on Sunday, October 27.Hide Caption 23 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisA Lebanese demonstrator scuffles with security forces trying to disperse protesters who were blocking a major bridge in Beirut on Sunday, October 27.Hide Caption 24 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisAnti-government protesters and Hezbollah supporters clash on Friday, October 25.Hide Caption 25 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisProtesters and counter-protesters face off near the government palace on October 25.Hide Caption 26 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisA protester uses a national flag to cover himself as it rains during a demonstration on Wednesday, October 23.Hide Caption 27 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisAnti-government protesters wave flags and shout slogans as Lebanese soldiers encircle them on October 23.Hide Caption 28 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisA rally takes place in Beirut outside the Mohammad al-Amin Mosque and the nearby Maronite Cathedral of St. George on Sunday, October 20.Hide Caption 29 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisPolice stand guard as anti-government protesters try to remove a barbed-wire barrier to advance toward government buildings on Saturday, October 19.Hide Caption 30 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisDemonstrators wave flags as they gather in the southern city of Sidon on October 19.Hide Caption 31 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisA protester holds a Lebanese flag as he sits in an inflatable pool on a highway in the town of Zouk Mosbeh on October 19.Hide Caption 32 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisLebanese soldiers stand guard in Beirut’s financial district on October 19.Hide Caption 33 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisA Lebanese demonstrator with her face painted like the comic book character the Joker takes part in a protest in Beirut on October 19.Hide Caption 34 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisA protester rolls a tire toward a smoking roadblock in Beirut on Friday, October 18.Hide Caption 35 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisLebanese police use a water cannon on anti-government protesters on October 18.Hide Caption 36 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisA demonstrator flashes a victory sign as he holds a national flag near a roadblock on October 18.Hide Caption 37 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisLebanese demonstrators burn wood and debris on Thursday, October 17.Hide Caption 38 of 39 Photos: Lebanon in crisisDemonstrators wave flags outside the government palace in Beirut on October 17.Hide Caption 39 of 39A new generation of activists, born out of a popular uprising that started with mass demonstrations in the fall of 2019 — known locally as the October 17th revolution — want this sectarian system of politics overturned and Lebanon’s diverse religious communities united. “What makes us different is that we really have no affiliation to any politician. We help everyone. We have no discrimination,” Abou Abdo said. “We really help anyone who belongs to the community because this how you build a better nation. We called it Nation Station because we really want to be the alternative of what we see every day.” Endemic corruption Photos: Violent protests erupt in Lebanon as pandemic makes financial crisis worseAnti-government protesters hurl stones at soldiers during clashes in Tripoli, Lebanon, on Tuesday, April 28.Hide Caption 1 of 17 Photos: Violent protests erupt in Lebanon as pandemic makes financial crisis worseA protester throws a rock at soldiers on Tuesday. Demonstrations in Lebanon first began in October, when the government proposed a tax on WhatsApp calls, along with other austerity measures. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in a bubbling-over of fury at political elites.Hide Caption 2 of 17 Photos: Violent protests erupt in Lebanon as pandemic makes financial crisis worseA protester lies on the floor after being wounded by a rubber bullet in Tripoli.Hide Caption 3 of 17 Photos: Violent protests erupt in Lebanon as pandemic makes financial crisis worseProtesters in Tripoli set banks on fire and vandalized their storefronts. The army responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.Hide Caption 4 of 17 Photos: Violent protests erupt in Lebanon as pandemic makes financial crisis worseA member of the Lebanese Civil Defense extinguishes a police car that was set on fire by protesters in Tripoli.Hide Caption 5 of 17 Photos: Violent protests erupt in Lebanon as pandemic makes financial crisis worseA soldier stops a man on a motorcycle during Tuesday’s clashes.Hide Caption 6 of 17 Photos: Violent protests erupt in Lebanon as pandemic makes financial crisis worseRed paint is seen on a burned ATM on Tuesday. The paint reads “hair cut = head cut.”Hide Caption 7 of 17 Photos: Violent protests erupt in Lebanon as pandemic makes financial crisis worse”We are hungry,” protesters cried as they faced off with security forces this week.Hide Caption 8 of 17 Photos: Violent protests erupt in Lebanon as pandemic makes financial crisis worseA police car burns in Tripoli on Tuesday.Hide Caption 9 of 17 Photos: Violent protests erupt in Lebanon as pandemic makes financial crisis worsePeople watch the clashes from a balcony in Tripoli.Hide Caption 10 of 17 Photos: Violent protests erupt in Lebanon as pandemic makes financial crisis worseA protester is carried after being wounded by a rubber bullet.Hide Caption 11 of 17 Photos: Violent protests erupt in Lebanon as pandemic makes financial crisis worseProtesters vandalize a bank in Tripoli’s Al-Nour Square.Hide Caption 12 of 17 Photos: Violent protests erupt in Lebanon as pandemic makes financial crisis worse”People are really, really desperate,” Mira Minkara, a Tripoli tour guide, entrepreneur and activist told CNN. “What happened (Tuesday) is an authentic reaction to the desperation, to the frustration and to the pain that people are feeling. It’s not normal pain. It’s the pain of when you’re hungry, you’re angry and you’re sad that you can’t pay rent any more and you can’t eat.”Hide Caption 13 of 17 Photos: Violent protests erupt in Lebanon as pandemic makes financial crisis worse”Lebanese soldiers are Lebanese citizens,” said photographer Diego Ibarra Sánchez. “They are suffering as their families, too. We´ve seen army soldiers crying, tearing up inside a military vehicle, or hugging protesters as troops moved in to reopen key highways a few months ago.” He said he has also witnessed what he thinks is excessive brutality.Hide Caption 14 of 17 Photos: Violent protests erupt in Lebanon as pandemic makes financial crisis worseA man watches the clashes from a chair in Tripoli. “There is a lot of tension in the atmosphere,” Ibarra Sánchez said.Hide Caption 15 of 17 Photos: Violent protests erupt in Lebanon as pandemic makes financial crisis worseThe coronavirus pandemic paused the protests, but they have returned with an increased intensity.Hide Caption 16 of 17 Photos: Violent protests erupt in Lebanon as pandemic makes financial crisis worseMen are seen inside a vandalized bank in Tripoli.Hide Caption 17 of 17The latest political dispute is between Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri and President Michel Aoun. Hariri has promised, once he finally has a government in place, to stop Lebanon’s collapse and restart negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over a desperately needed bailout. Lebanon’s problems are complex, but the root cause, critics say, is simple — corruption. In the aftermath of the port blast, Hassan Diab — now caretaker Prime Minister until a new cabinet is formed — lambasted the country’s political elite for fostering “an apparatus of corruption bigger than the state.” It was the failings of that corrupt, unaccountable system that ultimately led to the tragedy, critics say.There is a rift between Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri (right) and President Michel Aoun over forming a new government. “What happened on the 4th of August here in Lebanon is that the corruption literally exploded in our faces,” Riad Kobaissi, Lebanon’s leading investigative journalist, said. “It (the port) is a microcosm of the whole Lebanese system. It is based on bribery. It is based on patronage. I consider this to be a place operated by a mafia.” According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, Lebanon ranks 149 out of 180 countries, indicating high corruption levels. And the World Bank has blamed the economic depression on a “deliberate lack of effective policy action by authorities,” according to its fall 2020 report. The corruption ranges from petty bribes to a complex Ponzi scheme where many politicians have a stake in banks that provided loans to the state at sky high interest rates to rebuild Lebanon’s infrastructure after the civil war. Specter of civil conflict in Lebanon looms as economic meltdown gives way to violence Anger at the system is graffitied on the many concrete barricades around the Parliament, erected to keep protesters away from the building. The words “mafia” and “militia” are scrawled alongside the question: “If not now, when?” “I am hopeful that gradually my people will be able to make this political class accountable,” Kobaissi explained. “I am not expecting a radical change. I am expecting a gradual change, structural reformation that will happen over decades, but it will ultimately happen.” But for the families struggling to survive, change can’t come soon enough.
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