Mustafa Zakreet and his family’s lives have been rocked by war, violence and destruction in Syria. Now they bear witness to another horrific tragedy.
Mustafa, 28, a well-known Salmon Arm resident, travelled to Lebanon on July 30, finding himself present for the horrendous Beirut port explosion that is reported to have killed more than 175 people and injured 6,000.
Mustafa came to the Shuswap in 2016 as the first refugee from Syria to be sponsored in Salmon Arm. He is now a Canadian citizen and has been striving constantly to reunite his family.
Although his father Mohammad – who died in 2019 – and two brothers Abdul and Ahmad were able to join him in Salmon Arm, a brother Kahled and his family have been in a refugee camp in Lebanon for seven years. A sister, Rasha, and her family also live in Lebanon, but not in a camp. For three years Mustafa has been trying to untangle a web of paperwork that would allow his brother to immigrate to Canada, work he was hoping to continue in Lebanon.
Speaking from a town about 25 kilometres from Beirut where he went to visit his family members, Mustafa described the situation there.
The day of the explosion, he and his brother were together. The noise carried 25 kilometres.
“We heard the sound – oh my God, we both stood up, what just happened? Three, four, five minutes later, smoke covered the whole area, the skies were covered with smoke… Then we got advised not to go out because it might be poison.”
He said they received emergency calls about blood being required, so he and his nephew went to the hospital to donate.
He has heard that among the dead were 43 Syrian citizens.
Because all the buildings near the explosion were destroyed, all the people who were living in the area are homeless. On Aug. 7, three days after the explosion, he said two people had just been pulled alive from the collapsed buildings.
“They don’t have the capacity to lift all of the rubble and get people out,” he said.
If people in Salmon Arm and elsewhere wish to help, he recommends the Lebanese Red Cross, which he describes as a great organization that can be trusted.
He pointed out that because Lebanon is such a small country – about 10,000 square kilometres, the explosion has affected everyone. He said it also exacerbates existing problems.
“There are so many bad things happening in this country. The (corona) virus, economic failure, this explosion, refugee issues, everything.”
Prior to the explosion there were large protests against the government. On Monday, Aug. 10, Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his cabinet resigned. Mustafa said people were celebrating when they stepped down.
Poverty is widespread.
“I walk in the streets here and I see poor people everywhere, I’m surrounded with poor people. I was stopped today by four or five kids asking for money.”
He agreed it is heartbreaking. “Yeah, very. Very.”
Regarding COVID-19, Mustafa said he has observed it is not considered a medical fact by many but something to be debated.
“I even sat with a civil engineer originally from Syria – he was trying to convince me there is no virus. I was trying to tell him, ‘hey man, it’s real, I’ve seen people, I’ve seen economic failures out of this, I don’t know why you’re trying to say this.’”
Mustafa said part of the problem stems from difficulties accessing true information in Lebanon.
He admitted he is very worried about contracting the virus, particularly on the plane home, although he is taking all precautions possible.
A highlight of the trip, of course, has been his family. Asked if it was wonderful to see them after so long, Mustafa laughed quietly.
“Oh yeah. When I arrived here, my niece, she was asleep. I called her name and she just jumped out of bed and hugged me. It was so emotional.”