Refugees and Lebanese Fear Scarcity of Food, Medical Supplies in Explosion Aftermath

As Lebanon continues to grapple with the immediate impacts of the devastating explosion that rocked Beirut on Tuesday, leaving at least 157 people dead, 5,000 injured and at least 300,000 residents homeless, many are also looking to the future, in fear of what's to come.

In a country already on the brink of collapse and grappling with the coronavirus pandemic, the explosion—which wrecked Beirut's port, the main entry point for the food imports Lebanon relies heavily upon, and destroyed the country's main grain silo—has caused widespread panic over the possibility of months of food and medical supply shortages.

Speaking with Newsweek on Friday, Huda Samra, communications advisor for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in Lebanon, said that while the entire population in Lebanon will be affected, refugees are likely to be among the hardest hit.

"Right now, everyone in Lebanon is afraid of shortages of food supplies... and there were also medicines for some very serious diseases that were damaged and destroyed," she said.

But, the UNRWA spokesperson said: "Whatever happens to the Lebanese usually has a bigger impact on the Palestinians."

"So, what happens now economically in the country and with the destruction of the harbor...all of this will definitely have an impact on the refugees and UNRWA," she said.

With severe restrictions preventing Palestinian refugees from gaining employment in Lebanon, "they are unable to generate any income whatsoever, unemployment rates are very high and poverty is widespread," Samra said.

As a result, most are forced to rely on UNRWA for support. The relief agency has struggled to provide that care, particularly after the Trump administration axed U.S. funding for UNRWA, bringing the country's tradition of being the agency's largest single donor to an abrupt end.

"We are used to having the UNRWA as support in such times since no governmental institutions do that for the refugees," Kamal, a-28-year-old third-generation Palestinian refugee who has been volunteering to help Beirut residents affected by the blast, told Newsweek.

"But, UNRWA has been operating at its lowest for the past couple of years, so refugees, especially those still living in the camps, are afraid UNRWA won't be able to help," Kamal, who requested that his real name be withheld, said.

For refugees "who have been following the news for the past couple of years," he said, hearing people like "Trump and other right wing presidents and governments calling for an end to support for UNRWA" has been particularly scary.

And now, with the future even more uncertain, Kamal said he shares in Samra's fear that refugees in Lebanon will be the hardest hit.

Earlier this year, UNRWA had already launched an "emergency appeal" calling on the international community to support the agency in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, more than 90 Palestinian refugees have been confirmed to have contracted COVID-19, with one recent case resulting in death.

While Samra said UNRWA had recently received a shipment of medical supplies that should see the agency through for the immediate future, she said there are concerns about how UNRWA will make it through the months to come without additional support from the global community.

"We need money to cope and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and now, in Lebanon, we need specific funding to cope with the additional difficulties Palestinians will face," she said.

In the meantime, both Palestinian and Syrian refugees continue to serve on the frontlines of helping respond to this week's disaster.

In the hours after the explosion, Kamal and other refugees were quick to offer shelter in their homes to people displaced by the blast.

Meanwhile, refugees have also been donating blood to help victims of the blast, while many have also worked tirelessly to aid in rescue and clean-up efforts following the disaster.

Samra said she has "huge respect" for the way that refugees in and outside of Beirut have responded to the disaster.

"They participated very actively in the rescue and search operations on the ground... even digging out one survivor from under the rubble," she said. Meanwhile, "there are loads of initiatives of young Palestinians helping out in the streets and donating food and helping whoever is in need."

"It's solidarity at its best. You cannot think of more solidarity in such difficult times," she said.

"The loss" felt in the wake of the disaster, Samra said, "is the same... for the Lebanese and the Palestinians." She said the impacts of this crisis are likely to hit Palestinians harder.

"They have always been one of the most vulnerable communities," she said.

Beirut explosion
A picture shows the devastated Beirut port on August 7, 2020, three days after a massive blast there shook the Lebanese capital. JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty