Lebanese-Canadians begin to raise funds after attending Toronto vigil for blast victims
Pledge by Canadian government to match individual donations is welcome, organizers say
Members of Toronto's Lebanese community have begun to raise funds after hundreds filled a downtown square on Saturday night to pay tribute to victims of a Beirut explosion.
Community members lit candles, signed a board entitled "letters for Beirut" and carried Lebanese flags at the vigil in Nathan Phillips Square as they remembered those who died in the blast last Tuesday. They also listened to speakers and held a moment of silence.
The blast killed at least 160 people, wounded more than 5,000 and defaced the city's shoreline. More than 300,000 have been left without homes due to damaged buildings.
"The footage of the explosion and its aftermath has brought the world to tears. The pain and suffering has been felt across all borders," Julia Chakra, an organizer of the vigil, told the crowd.
In an interview earlier, Chakra said she welcomes a federal government announcement on Saturday to match donations by individual Canadian citizens for Beirut relief efforts up to a maximum of $2 million, saying she is grateful that the government has stepped up to help.
"To be able to say as a proud Canadian, my government here at home has been able to offer its support is something that I'm so proud of," she said. "The support has been incredible."
The government has said the aid will not go directly to the Lebanese government.
Chakra scrolled through photos of her family in Lebanon while sitting in front of the Toronto sign and said the majority of her relatives are safe but her mother's first cousin is still in an intensive care unit. The family is praying for her recovery, she added.
"It's been very overwhelming. It tugs on our heartstrings. It breaks me. I'm angry. I'm outraged. More than anything, I'm heartbroken," she said.
The city lit up the Toronto sign in the colours of the Lebanese flag on Saturday.
Mohamad Fakih, founder and CEO of the Paramount Fine Foods restaurant chain, also welcomed the news that the government will match donations.
Fakih is part of a group of Lebanese-Canadian business owners who have formed a group, the Lebanese Canadian Coalition, to raise $2.5 million for Beirut relief efforts.
The coalition has partnered with the Humanitarian Coalition, a group of 12 established aid organizations working on the ground in Lebanon, and is already soliciting donations on its website.
"We think we're going to raise much more and we'll be continuing this effort," he said.
Aid needed to meet immediate needs, minister says
International Development Minister Karina Gould said on Saturday that concerted humanitarian action is required to meet the immediate needs of people impacted by the blast, including health care food, shelter and water.
The blast is believed to have happened when a fire touched off a stockpile of 2,750 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate that authorities left sitting in a warehouse for years — despite years of repeated warnings from officials that it posed a danger.
Donations made by Canadians before August 24 to the Humanitarian Coalition will be matched by the federal government, she said.
"My message to Canadians is this: the best way that you can help is to donate money, and for your contribution to be matched by the government of Canada, donations must be made to the humanitarian coalition or one of its partners."
In a news release on Saturday, Gould added: "The situation in Beirut remains critical, and coordinated humanitarian action is required to respond to this terrible tragedy.
"Canada is known for its efficient humanitarian work and we have trusted aid organizations already working in the country. I encourage Canadians to donate to the Lebanon Matching Fund to help save lives and meet the urgent, immediate needs of the affected Lebanese communities."
Matching fund part of $5M in emergency aid
The matching fund is part of $5 million in emergency aid pledged by Ottawa earlier this week. Another $1.5 million of aid has been earmarked for the Lebanese Red Cross.
Canada is directing all of its aid for this crisis directly to humanitarian organizations, not the Lebanese government, to ensure the assistance goes to those in need, Gould said.
Members of the Humanitarian Coalition members are Action Against Hunger, Canadian Foodgrains Bank, Canadian Lutheran World Relief, CARE Canada, Doctors of the World, Humanity and Inclusion, Islamic Relief Canada, Oxfam Canada, Oxfam Québec, Plan International Canada, Save the Children Canada and World Vision Canada.
With files from Muriel Draaisma, Farrah Merali, The Canadian Press