Michel Ibrahim was in his barbershop on the morning of Aug, 3 when his phone began ringing non-stop. It was friends and customers mostly wanting to express their condolences about the disaster in Lebanon. It was then he turned on the TV and learned about a devastating explosion in the Port of Beirut.
The Lebanese Canadian barber and philanthropist lost many friends and relatives in the blast, which leveled neighbourhoods near the port and damaged buildings for kilometres around.
“My nephew works for the Red Cross in Lebanon and he's seen it, hands on. People falling into the sea. People fall off their balconies. Buildings falling down, full of people,” he said. “The damage. The agony. The stress. The fear. The destruction is unthinkable.”
Two of his friends – a customs officer who worked at the port and a doctor who raced to help victims after the first explosion – are among the missing, Ibrahim said.
His two nieces who live in apartments less than a kilometre away from the blast site had all of their building's windows blown out, and there is no guess as to when the power will come back on. And his sister witnessed her neighbours thrown from their balcony.
“They're in shock. They're devastated. They are having nightmares from that blast,” he said.
Prior to coming to Canada 30 years ago, Ibrahim lived in the small town if Jebjannine, about 40 kilometres inland from Beirut. His 97-year-old uncle was outside there when the blast shook their home. The senior immediately went into cardiac arrest and also died, Ibrahim said.
Ibrahim said there is so little trust between the people and the government, which is widely perceived as corrupt, he does not accept their estimates for how many people have been killed or remain missing. Ibrahim said he puts the blame for the explosion on government corruption and Lebanon being forever caught in a proxy war between Iran and Israel.
Now the West Vancouver philanthropist is doing what he always does when there’s a humanitarian crisis – turning his barbershop into a fundraising hub.
Ibrahim estimates the money he’s raised for relief efforts following earthquakes, wars, forest fires and floods is into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And over the last 28 years, the foundation the rabid soccer fan started has equipped and brought the beautiful game to more than 15,000 kids in close to 30 countries, often those living in refugee camps.
But this is the first time he’s found himself collecting donations to benefit people in his home country.
His family owns two houses in Jebjannine, which he has asked his sister to make available to people left homeless from the explosion. International estimates say there have been 300,000 people displaced.
Any donations he collects now will be given to the Red Cross. He also has 1,000 soccer jerseys he will be selling out of his shop for $10 each.
“This money – 100 per cent will be going to the victims’ families in Lebanon,” he said.
Since word has spread, Ibrahim said he’s had hundreds of people come into his Ambleside barbershop to express their condolences, which he has found touching. On Saturday, one regular customer pledged $20,000. Another, who works for a consulting firm downtown, said they were so moved, they donated $350,000 to the Red Cross.
“I’m very proud of these people who pour their energy to help such a small country like Lebanon,” he said. “Everybody in Canada who will give $1 to help the crisis… a million thanks to them.”
Ibrahim is also challenging the Lower Mainland’s Lebanese community – about 5,000 people according to the last census – to join him in finding ways to help out at home.
“They can go to the Red Cross. They can come to the shop. We need help. This is a disaster. This is catastrophe for Lebanon,” he said.
Donations can be made via the Red Cross website or at the West Van Barbershop at 1345 Marine Dr.
This story has been updated to include donations received after the story initially ran online.