By James Shea
University Public Affairs
Three Virginia Commonwealth University graduates watched in horror on social media as a powerful explosion hit Beirut, Lebanon, in August. They knew they had to help.
Mirella Shaban, along with fellow VCU grads and siblings Guiliano Melki, who graduated in 2019 with a degree in biology from the College of Humanities and Sciences, and Gabriella Melki, a Ph.D. graduate from the College of Engineering, began talking about ways to help those affected shortly after the explosion. The Lebanese community in Richmond had started to organize relief efforts, but the friends saw a need for a centralized effort.
The explosion occurred when a fire detonated a large amount of ammonium nitrate stored at the port. The explosion devastated the city. It was the third-largest explosion in history after the two nuclear bombs that were dropped on Japan in World War II.
“We know that over 300,000 people have been displaced from their homes,” said Shaban, who graduated from VCU in May with a degree in environmental studies from VCU Life Sciences. “Over 6,000 people were injured. The hospitals were overwhelmed by the explosion. People were walking between hospitals to try and find medical care because so many people were injured.”
By the middle of August, the VCU grads had formally incorporated RVA4Lebanon, a nonprofit organization to help with relief efforts in Beirut. The group made contact with several organizations in Lebanon, created a website, and started an arts fundraiser featuring work from Lebanese artists and paintings made from materials retrieved from the explosion. They sought donations of cash and goods and started a crowd-sourcing account. The organization received support in Richmond but also from around the world. So far, RVA4Lebanon has raised around $10,000 and received donations of 2,200 pounds of goods.
To ship the supplies, the group reached out to Emirates airline, which offered to cover 100% of the costs, as well as a Washington, D.C.-based export company, which also waived its fees.
For Shaban, the relief effort is close to her heart. Her father was born in Lebanon and came to the U.S as a teenager. Her mother, who is Lebanese, came to the United States when she married Shaban’s father. Shaban has numerous relatives in Lebanon and over the years has spent a lot of time in the country.
She loves the culture and the resiliency of the people. The region has a troubled history. Beirut was a place on the Mediterranean where Europeans and others vacationed until Lebanon became embroiled in a civil war from 1975 to 1990.
“It’s unlike any culture you experience,” Shaban said. “Everybody is very welcoming. You walk by a small grocery store and they ask you to come inside. They offer you some kind of dessert and a drink. Everybody kind of knows one another.”
The supplies arrived in mid-October, and a nongovernmental organization received and distributed the goods. RVA4Lebanon is only working with organizations that have a nonpolitical or non-religious agenda.
“Everybody is excited to help out,” Shaban said. “It’s hard for us in America to understand the amount of destruction, and the effect that it had.”
She is confident that the city will survive the explosion. She said the people she talks to on the ground are energized and motivated to get the city up and running.
“People always compare Beirut to a phoenix, which a lot of locals are not happy with because it’s not by choice that they have to rise from the ashes,” she said. “But Beirut always ends up coming back.”