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A Palestinian author is reigniting hope in Lebanon with candles and celebrities

Palestinian-Canadian author Chaker Khazaal Mohamad Seif/@mseifphotography
Palestinian-Canadian author Chaker Khazaal Mohamad Seif/@mseifphotography

The explosion in Beirut last month could not have come at a worse time for children and families. In a country that is already under enormous economic and social strain, it was a tragedy. The catastrophic blast in the port of Beirut killed nearly 200 people and destroyed thousands of buildings. The official response has increasingly focused on recovering bodies with little hope left of finding more survivors.

For Palestinian-Canadian author Chaker Khazaal, however, hope is a key part of life. Bogged down by the negative news consuming social media during the early stage of the coronavirus pandemic, he launched a campaign with an app for people to light virtual candles. It was a powerful way to encourage them to have hope even while struggling through what seemed like a very dark period.

Candle of Hope is an app which allows users to track the number of people who are doing the same around the globe. He founded the initiative now used by over 200 celebrities and public figures including Lebanese singer and actress Haifa Wehbe, Egyptian actress Nelly Karim and Palestinian architect Mohamed Hadid, in the belief that not all giving has to be financial in order to change lives.

The 32-year-old author of Tale of Tala and Confessions of a War Child trilogy went to Beirut in February to work on a project during what was meant to be a short visit. However, not only was he met with the global pandemic putting international travel at a standstill, but he then went on to experience the massive blast that has devastated the lives of thousands in the city. People have been affected psychologically as well as physically.

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"The world went dark very fast," he explained. "We created a website to count the dead people for heaven's sake. And in extreme darkness, any light works, including virtual light for that one second of positivity. And then this is how it started and developed."

As the world continues to mourn the loss of almost a million fellow human beings to Covid-19, Khazaal said that there needs to be more investment in highlighting initiatives that spread hope during such uncertain times. And then the Beirut explosion came along.

"All the work that we have done in Lebanon around the celebration of hope blew up in our faces on 4 August," he told me. "Last week, I had to pick up the momentum of the team there because a blast doesn't only destroy a city, a blast also destroys souls. It destroys the morale of the people. It destroys our belief in hope."

Although he considers himself to be an ambassador of hope for the world today, on the evening after the blast he was crying and asking himself, "What the hell have I been believing?"

Even before the pandemic, families across Lebanon were struggling in the face of a rapidly devaluing currency, unemployment and inflation. There were also daily power cuts, a lack of safe drinking water and limited public health care. According to the UN World Food Programme, 50 per cent of the Lebanese people said that they were worried about not having enough to eat.

Chaker Khazaal's drive to find hope and positivity even in the worst circumstances faltered following the blast in Lebanon's capital. With such difficulties all around him, his thoughts turned to the plight of the refugees living in and around the city, not least because he spent his early life living in Burj Barajneh, a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut's southern suburbs where he was born.

"That one incident on 4 August brought back a lot of things from the graveyard of my mind, which I talk about in my memoir Ouch. People who lived in Lebanon in 1997, 2005, 2020 when the power plants were bombed in Lebanon, the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and then this blast, they have something in common. Such events bring about a sense of a déjà vu that shatters your identity." Many dreadful, buried memories came flooding back. "Too many."

Khazaal wrote Ouch as a memoir "with a twist" about his upbringing in Burj Barajneh and how he survived the world's fourth largest explosion while undergoing psychological trauma. Writing it enabled him to express himself and process the emotional shock of such a singularly tragic event; it took him just 17 days.

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"I just wrote nonstop, it was crazy. But it was the most genuine thing I've ever written, it came straight from the heart. I called it Ouch because it's associated with all my pain, from my childhood till now."

Witnessing the immediate aftermath of the explosion, it also made him realise that Candle of Hope is a project that can be implemented in all times of despair, by and for anyone.

"If I managed to get a nurse waking up in Beirut days after a blast where she's treating more patients than she's ever had before to smile for one second because of a push notification sent by the Candle of Hope app, that smile can change the mood of ten people in the hospital around her. We need small things like that which have a big impact."

He has started to feature the life stories of those who need hope as a call to action. The first was about Rita Esber, a 29-year-old Lebanese woman born with her lower left arm missing.

"We set a target for Rita and after 100,000 candles were lit for her with the support of celebrities, it translated into enough money to buy her a bionic arm. We didn't need to ask for help, we just showed people what we're doing and they joined us. Mohamed Hadid was super excited; more excited than I was about spreading hope for his audience."

Chaker Khazaal believes that shared experiences bring us together, especially in times of great crisis. The Candle of Hope app serves as a timely reminder to the people of a devastated city — and the rest of the world — that even in times of great adversity, there is always hope for the future.

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