Beirut, Lebanon, may be more than 6,600 miles away from Wichita, but the massive and devastating explosion that rocked the country on Aug. 4 had a significant impact on many physicians in Sedgwick County and continues to drive their efforts today.
The disaster started with a warehouse fire at the Port of Beirut, which officials reported set off a colossal explosion after 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been unsafely stored there detonated.
The blast leveled nearly everything surrounding the port and damaged buildings and blew out windows of structures miles away. Three hospitals were wrecked and one of the largest ones was destroyed. Some 200 people were reported dead from the blast and thousands more were injured. Officials reported damages of up to $15 billion while an estimated 300,000 people were made homeless.
The explosion sent emotional shock waves around the world and directly to Wichita, where a thriving Lebanese community – including an estimated 40-60 physicians of Lebanese descent – reeled from the shock and horror of the news. Many have family or friends who were living there at the time and were injured or impacted by the explosion.
“My parents live there and I have a house in Beirut,” said oncologist Bassam Mattar, MD, of the Cancer Center of Kansas. “We prided ourselves that we can see the port and Mediterranean from our house.”
Fortunately for Mattar, his parents were vacationing in the mountains and were not present in their sixth-floor house that day. “They were not home,” Mattar said. “That’s why they survived.” His brother, however, was home and luckily received only minor scratches as the roof blew in. He helped take an injured neighbor to a hospital, which was a major undertaking since the nearby hospitals were out of commission, Mattar said.
“It was a big mess,” he said. “There was a lot of damage.”
Many Lebanese people blame an inept government crippled by corruption for allowing circumstances to exist that led to the explosion. The Aug. 4 blast, which prompted traumatic memories of the country’s 15-year civil war, has motivated many Lebanese families to leave for good, Wichita physicians said.
This is a shame for the country, whose beauty is unrivaled and whose potential could be limitless, said Shadi Shahouri, MD, a rheumatologist with Arthritis and Rheumatology Clinics of Kansas. Shahouri, who received his medical degree in 1998 from the American University of Beirut, has been in contact with his nephew, a well-educated, young urbanite whose home was completely destroyed by the blast.
Sadly, his nephew has had enough and is going to leave Lebanon permanently and move to France.
“This makes me feel sad because this is the story of a lot of Lebanese generations,” Shahouri said. “His story is like my story. They are supposed to be the hope of the country. But they could not have a successful, good life in Lebanon because of wars and
corruption. We didn’t have enough chance to succeed in our country and we basically emigrated. That’s what is happening now.”
There is anger, too. For the senseless deaths. For the loss of property. For the helplessness one feels being worlds apart and watching the devastation unfold. Despite the challenges, many Lebanese residents in Wichita want to help.
Chady Sarraf, MD, chief hospitalist with Sound Physicians, is corralling his shock and frustration into an organized platform through which Wichitans can assist. He co-leads the USA Chapter of the International Lebanese Medical Association (ILMA), which officially launched in August. The group is looking to connect with colleagues and support medical graduates of Lebanese descent in the U.S. as well as in Lebanon. At the moment, however, its priority is to provide medical and food assistance to Lebanon following the disaster.
“The scale of the disaster is just beyond anything you can imagine,” Sarraf said. “We know there are going to be a lot of limitations taking care of those patients. We want to reach out and see how we can support them.”
After the blast, and with COVID in full swing, one of the immediate needs is for dialysis machines to minister to 4,100 Lebanese dialysis patients throughout the country. The minister of public health, Dr. Hamad Hassan, wrote the USA Chapter of the ILMA on Aug. 31 asking for help with obtaining at least five dialysis machines and four portable reverse osmosis units.
“I think we can reach out, talk to our connections, see if we can help,” Sarraf said. “We want to be established and be strong in Wichita and Sedgwick County because we would like to give back to the community and make a difference. We can definitely help in many ways. That’s why I feel really passionate about it.”
How to help
To join or help Dr. Chady Sarraf through the USA Chapter of the International Lebanese Medical Association, please contact Dr. Sarraf at firstname.lastname@example.org.