Following the devastating explosion in the Lebanese capital, an online platform was launched to help families and friends find their missing loved ones. We meet the people behind the initiative, writes Pamela Kesrouani.
Lebanon’s citizens are in mourning. They are also in the process of attempting to understand and recover from the initial shock of last week’s blast at a port in the capital Beirut.
The catastrophe has claimed the lives of more than 200 people, with thousands more injured. But there also remains hundreds of residents still unaccounted for.
As search and rescue teams continue to work on the ground, citizens almost instantly began to create pages and groups on social media to help people with aid or find missing friends and family. At the forefront of this community is Locate Victims Beirut, an online platform created by a group of young individuals – some still teenagers – who quickly came together with the hope to provide assistance to those affected.
One of these individuals is 15-year-old Emma Sleiman, who realised the need for a single platform to gather as much confirmed information as possible about those missing.
"I live outside of Beirut, and have not been directly affected by the explosion. All my loved ones are safe and fine,” she tells us, adding that she decided to launch an online locator as she felt she was in a “better mental state” than those already incredibly busy on the ground, thus relieving some of the pressure off her fellow citizens.
London-based law graduate Zahraa Issa – who has been engaged in various humanitarian work for over a year – had the same idea.
"Following the explosion on August 4, I created an Instagram account [to help]," she explains. "After I noticed that many victims were being reported across several accounts, I realised that it would be difficult for me to remember all the individual social media pages. Therefore, I decided to create a unified platform to help locate those still missing in the aftermath.”
Adds Issa: "In the beginning, it was just an ordinary Instagram account, which me and my friends took turns to administrating around the clock. Now, however, we joined forces with another team, who launched a purpose-built website to serve the same cause.”
These consolidated efforts allowed for more effective action, with the presence of a detailed e-form on the website that can help keep track every person missing, rather than solely relying on direct Instagram messages, which reached overwhelming numbers.
“The process has become more structured and efficient, and there are people working on all fronts, in addition to a daily-updated comprehensive database,” she continues.
YOUNG PEOPLE IN HUMANITARIAN ACTION
These young individuals – two of many involved in the project – tell us that they were motivated by their feelings of helplessness, as well as their perceived lack of action by the government.
"Today, our team was hard at work trying to find updated information about officially confirmed deaths, so that we can add them to our database,” Issa says. “Unfortunately, such information was not available, neither on the official website of the Ministry of Health nor on any other social media platform. It looks as if things are spinning out of control."
So just how does the team manage to keep the database updated around the clock? The duo credit the accompanying official Instagram account’s nearly 110,000 followers consistently gathering and sharing information, as well as a team verifying facts.
"We are not an official entity, and we have to be careful not to spread false information. On several occasions, we posted pictures of people, only to be contacted by friends to point out that they were alive," Sleiman states. "Now when clicking on the victim’s picture on the website, the user will automatically be directed to the corresponding Instagram post given the important information available in the comments under that post."
Volunteering all their time towards this arduous and no doubt mentally draining task, Sleiman adds that they wanted to take on the responsibility to “show the world that the new generation is capable of creating change, and that we will be able to rebuild Beirut hand in hand.”
But it is an enormous load to bear; they rejoice when they locate a missing person and similarly grieve when they can't.
"We are aware that it is less likely to find more individuals the more time passes,” Sleiman says. “However, we will keep on trying because we do not want anyone to remain missing. We went through a long civil war before, and we still have thousands of missing people [from that time]. Their loved ones haven’t been able to move on since."
As the task is so fast-paced, Sleiman and Issa are not aware of just how many families or individuals the team has been able to help so far. However, what motivates them to continue working are the letters of gratitude sent to them. The girls share the same spirit of the thousands of Lebanese citizens who took it upon themselves to get involved in tasks such as cleaning the streets, distributing food parcels, providing medical assistance in the aftermath of the tragedy, and more.
The likes of Sleiman and Issa bring hope that the Lebanese youth of today can bring the change so desperately needed in the country.