31-year-old Felix al-Murr has been working with the Red Cross since 2002. From the 2006 war with Israel to the conflict in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp, Felix was present at some of Lebanon’s most violent episodes of the past 10 years.
Dressed in his orange Red Cross uniform, the tall and burly man who works as a real estate developer by day walks through the newly-built station 203 in Cornet Chehwan. He apologizes for being late. “I was called on an emergency just before our meeting,” he says. “This one was quite stressful. We had a fight with the personnel of the hospital where we brought the victim. They said we shouldn’t have brought her here because the hospital was full. Unfortunately, hospitals changed their priorities. The first thing they ask for is the patient’s insurance,” he adds, before offering to take me on a tour of the center.
Reminders of the risk of their work are everywhere. Enshrined on the entrance’s walls, for instance, is a photo showing two volunteers who died intoxicated while trying to rescue a man who had fallen in a well in 1985. On the right is the operation room where all the emergency calls are answered. On the left, the living room in which a group of high school students doing their community service are folding compresses. In the basement, a bomb shelter has been turned into a storage facility. Finally, on the second floor we find the dormitories, where rescuers rest. “We can go on up to seven emergencies in one shift,” explains Murr, who was on a 12-hour shift. “So far I went on three calls: two car accidents and one elderly who lost consciousness.”
Like him, thousands of Lebanese people have chosen to volunteer as rescuers with the Red Cross. They are students, real estate developers, movie directors, and they decided to dedicate their lives to rescuing people in distress, for better or for worse.
“We work on daily accidents that are just as devastating as explosions. The difficult thing is dealing with the loss of people and seeing people in pain. We are never called when people are happy. We are called when people have died, or fallen down, for stressful situations,” says Murr, the sound of ambulances’ radio communications resonating throughout the living room.
23-year-old Samara Mattouk, who could still pass for a high school student, agrees. After four years spent as a rescuer, she says one of the most difficult things she has to deal with is people’s pain. “Dealing with the relatives and watching them suffer is very difficult because we can’t do anything. On the other hand, we have rescuers who come here to escape the daily life because they feel like they are part of a bigger cause,” she says, adding that with the chaos on the scene, accidents can also be hard to manage. “When people panic, they just get in your way, instead of actually helping. As rescuers we cannot use violence so we have to suck it all in. It’s very hard.”
“Do you want to have dinner with us?” Murr asks. “You are lucky: we rarely have the chance to eat together. Usually, as soon as we sit, we are called on an emergency,” he says while walking toward the kitchen where a dozen people have gathered around a meal prepared by one of the rescuers’ mother.
According to him, recruiting new volunteers is getting more and more difficult. Long working hours, stress, and today’s difficult economic situation are pulling Lebanese away from volunteer work. “The most stressful thing is to manage work and time in the Red Cross. Sometimes we spend full nights of emergency and you have to go back to work in the morning. Employers don’t care about the fact that you have to leave early to go to the Red Cross,” Murr explains. “Sometimes you have to make a choice between saving lives or working. Your heart wants to save lives but you need to work to make a living,” he adds, resigned.
Mattouk has been volunteering for four years, and she already knows she will have to quit at some point. “It requires a lot of time, so it’s hard to balance your personal time, your friends, your family. If my career requires me to resign, I will,” she says.
As a result, rescuers are becoming a scarce resource in Lebanon.
“Before, for example, the number of people admitted on the team after passing all the tests was, let’s say, 25. Now we barely have 15. That’s because there are less people signing up. Volunteering in Lebanon is going down, because the economic situation is more difficult. People’s priorities have changed, due to economy mainly. Before we could choose the people, but now we take the best of the available,” Murr explains.
40-year-old Jean-Paul Klat met Murr through a common passion for martial arts. Like Murr, Klat served many years in the Red Cross. He decided to quit in 2002 after eight years of service. “I quit because I didn’t have enough time anymore with work. I also felt like I didn’t care anymore when I saw a dead body or when people died because I had seen so many. It’s something that is still affecting me today,” he told NOW.
But for Naji Bechara, a young movie director who also works at station 203, working with the Red Cross has been a source of inspiration. The 28-year-old created a reality show called “Story of Life and Death” ("قصة حياة أو موت"). The show, which started in January 2014 on Future TV, follows groups of rescuers working with the Red Cross during emergency situations. “We did this show for many reasons. The main one was to show the general public what the 2000-something volunteers did every day. Part of it was also awareness about the different emergencies that might come up any day with anyone and what a person without training can do to help,” says Bechara.
“There is something very addictive about the Red Cross. You become very passionate and it becomes part of who you are.”