In the midst of social unrest, an economic downturn and the aftermath of August’s devastating explosion, Safaa Mourad, President of the newly-founded Netherlands Alumni Association in Lebanon, is trying to support her fellow citizens – and students in particular.
August 4, 2020, will be a date forever inscribed in Lebanon’s history books, and in the lives of millions of Lebanese. On that fateful Tuesday, a large amount of ammonium nitrate exploded in the port of Beirut, causing almost 200 deaths, 6,500 injuries, and an estimated 15 billion US Dollar in property damage. In addition, the incident left 300,000 people homeless. The explosion constitutes an exclamation mark on a year marked by an epidemic, a national economic crisis, a collapse of the currency and civil protests.
“The explosion surpassed all the other crises that we were going through”, says Safaa Mourad, Senior Radiation Safety Specialist at the American University of Beirut and Founder and President of the Netherlands Alumni Association in Lebanon.
“The born and raised Lebanese, who spent time at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in 2009 with a scholarship of the Nuffic Mena Scholarship Programme financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was among the many people providing emergency support to injured people right after the blast. “Seeing a big part of our beloved Beirut destroyed, injured people, deaths, and missing people, was something that is beyond what words can express.”
“Yet”, Safaa continues, “despite all the pain, I started to realise that Lebanon is an eternal country, and no matter what, it will rise again, just as it happened many times before.”
Down, but certainly not out. Despite hardship, Safaa continues to be ambitious, optimistic and forward-looking. With such personality traits it comes as no surprise that a few months earlier members of the newly-founded Netherlands Alumni Association choose Safaa as its President.
Why was the Netherlands Alumni Association founded?
“Studying in the Netherlands provides rich experiences, both educational and personal. Staying connected with other Lebanese people who have spent time in the Netherlands gives members the opportunity to learn from everyone’s acquired knowledge, and opens the door for an interdisciplinary approach for dealing with the many challenges we face in this country.”
“One of the objectives of the Netherlands Alumni Association is to spread the word about the Mena Scholarship Programme, the Orange Knowledge Programme and other studying opportunities in the Netherlands, in order to create more educational opportunities for the Lebanese citizens. We feel a special responsibility to consolidate the relations between Lebanon and the Netherlands and to facilitate exchange of knowledge and culture. In addition, the association creates a social and professional network that is quite important in Lebanon which is characterised by its social diversity.”
“As of today, we are aware of 45 Netherlands alumni living in Lebanon, although not all of them have yet joined. We planned for a launching event to bring in people, but unfortunately it had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 epidemic. In the meantime, we created a mailing list and a WhatsApp group for all alumni. Although we are still in the early stages, we succeeded in creating a social network that opens the door for experience exchange and working together.”
“Holland alumni are practicing their acquired knowledge in the Netherlands in activities related to explosion response”
How do you look back on your time in the Netherlands?
“The short course on Water Distribution I followed at the IHE Delft Institute for Water Education was a really enriching experience both on the academic and on the personal level. I had the chance to be mentored by professors in one of the world leading institutions in water education, and most importantly, I acquired knowledge that I can use to the benefit of my country.”
“On a personal level, I got into close touch with people from various cultural backgrounds. It gave me the chance to explore Dutch culture and interact with its peaceful and lovely people. Moreover, I got to visit many cities in the Netherlands and enjoy its natural beauty. Not to mention the personal relationships I developed, many of which are still active.”
Has anything in particular you learned in the Netherlands better prepared you, and other members, for an active role in the rebuilding of Beirut, and the larger Lebanese society?
“Although the subject I studied in the Netherlands was not directly related to something that can be applied in the current situation in Lebanon, what I learned from my experience with studies in the Netherlands is the cooperation spirit. In fact, Dutch programs dedicated to providing full educational scholarships to the people of developing countries are role models for cross-border collaborations.”
“In this regard, the way I am trying to help Lebanon in these days is based on the accumulated experience and knowledge that I built throughout my professional career. Moreover, I am aware that amongst the Holland alumni there are individuals who followed courses related to energy, environment, engineering and social work, who are practicing their acquired knowledge in certain activities related to explosion response.”
“Seeing a big part of our beloved Beirut destroyed, injured people, deaths, and missing people, was something that is beyond what words can express”
What kind of help does Lebanon need from other countries right now, in your view?
“Before the explosion, Lebanon was already passing through a difficult economic crisis and a collapse of the Lebanese currency. For these reasons, the explosion came in a time where neither the government nor the individuals are able to cope with the devastating impacts. Fortunately, Lebanon received immediate aid that was directed to NGOs in support of affected families. We appreciate all the support we receive, including that of the Dutch people. I do believe though that the cost of the explosion by far exceeds the means gathered. Also, having this aid going directly to NGOs has created transparency issues in some cases. Especially since there seems to be no clear operational coordination between the NGOs and our government.”
“In the short term, Lebanon is still urgently in need of global funds to help the country in the reconstruction of Beirut, providing food supplies, securing shelters, and mitigating the psychological effects that were caused by the explosion. In my opinion, it is crucial to have some kind of coordinated plan between the government and the NGOs to make sure that funds are fairly and efficiently distributed. Long term, I believe Lebanon needs to be supported in ways that promote its economic growth. This can be done by investing in the industrial and agricultural sectors to decrease the country’s dependence on the foreign imports and to create more employment opportunities.”
Do you see a role for the Netherlands Alumni Association here?
“We hope to be amongst the NGOs that are working on the field to support our citizens. We are trying to get some funds to be invested in the educational field, because we believe that the students of Lebanon did not get the proper education last year, and we are trying to help save the upcoming year. We also hope for a role in facilitating online education. We are in touch with Nuffic and were informed that Dutch donations are usually distributed through specific aid organisations. At the moment, we are now still looking for other funding opportunities. As alumni, we did get to share our experiences as related to the response to the explosion. Some of the alumni, each from its own background and type of work, participated in certain activities including environmental monitoring, energy supplies, awareness, cleaning and psychological support.”