BEIRUT (AFP) – Standing in the gutted ruins of her cafe destroyed by Beirut’s massive port blast, Lebanese entrepreneur Gizelle Hassoun said she hopes crowdfunding can help save her business from the rubble.
“This place was my life,” the 46-year-old said, standing on top of piles of broken shutters and plaster.
“Then just like that – bam! – there was nothing left,” she said, a blown-out wall behind her providing a view of the tall cranes at the capital’s port.
Nestled on the first floor of a blue villa in Beirut’s lively Gemmayzeh district, Madame Om was once a popular spot famed for its weekend parties.
But today the walls of the rented venue are cracked, part of its floor has caved in, and its balcony has been blown off. The cafe will have to move.
“We’re fundraising,” Hassoun said, under surviving snapshots of Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum. “So perhaps we can go back to doing something, get back on our feet, re-employ the little staff we had.”
So far USD5,000 of an USD85,000 objective has been raised.
On August 4, a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate exploded on the dockside, killing more than 190 people, wounding thousands, and ravaging large parts of the city.
Beirut’s nightlife districts of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael, known for their cafes, restaurants and art galleries, were some of the hardest hit neighbourhoods.
The army last week said it had surveyed 19,115 businesses and 962 restaurants damaged by the explosion.
For many, the blast was a knockout punch after months of financial struggle to survive Lebanon’s worst economic crisis in decades and a coronavirus lockdown.
With little hope of compensation or loans from struggling Lebanese banks, savvy business owners are crowdfunding online to tap into donations from abroad.
Hany Bourghol, 37, co-founder of the Cortado cafe, was able to take out a loan from a United Arab Emirates bank to fix his coffee shop and pay salaries.
He hopes crowdfunding will help him pay the loan back.
“We cannot wait for the army or the government,” Bourghol said. “We need to resume work.”
The online campaign has collected a quarter of the USD20,000 requested.
A Romanian barista who helped Bourghol set up the cafe rallied coffee houses in Romania to send donations too, while an aid organisation has provided free building materials.
“We have had a lot of solidarity,” Bourghol said.
The campaigns have attracted attention. Days after the blast, actor Russell Crowe pitched in USD5,000 to support the Le Chef restaurant on behalf of late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who loved its traditional dishes.
“I thought that he would have probably done so if he was still around,” Crowe said of the celebrity chef, who died in 2018. “Hope things can be put back together soon.”
But it is not just restaurants and cafes. After the climbing wall at the Flyp centre where she trained collapsed in the blast, Laura Karam, 24, took to social media.
“We were forced to resort to crowdfunding and ask the climbing community outside Lebanon to help us out,” she said.
Karam took pictures of volunteers in a crane unscrewing colourful climbing grips from the damaged 15-metre high wall to reuse on a new one.
“I think rebuilding this place is essential, just like everything else in Beirut,” she said.
“Beirut wouldn’t survive if it weren’t for the businesses and everyone coming together.”
The campaign to rebuild the climbing wall has raked in more than USD16,000 of a USD30,000 goal.
Diala Sammakieh, 46, co-owner of the Flyp centre, said the climbing wall crowdfunder was such a success that she set up a separate campaign for its parkour and trampoline park. There is still far to go, with just USD1,000 out of USD50,000 pledged.
But she hopes part of the money will go towards covering employee salaries for three months.
Since the explosion, it has emerged the authorities knew the huge quantity of ammonium nitrate was stored at the port, but took no action to move it.
Sammakieh, who also lost her home in the blast, is determined to rebuild her life.
“We don’t believe the government will do anything for us,” even though “they’re the ones who blew us up,” she said.
“Although they want to kick us out of our country, we don’t want to go.”