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Guelph Lebanese couple raise money through their restaurant for Beirut relief efforts

Layla and Joe Hamzi own Retour Bistro and are donating 10 per cent of their August sales to help those affected by the explosion
Layla and Joe Hamzi. Maxine Betteridge-Moes

Local restaurant owners Layla and Joe Hamzi are donating 10 per cent of this month’s sales from their Lebanese restaurant, Retour Bistro, to relief efforts following the massive port explosion in Beirut on Aug. 4.

The couple has family and friends that have been affected by the blast, and are seeking the community’s support in raising funds to provide food, water, baby items and protective equipment to the thousands of injured and hundreds of thousands of displaced people in Beirut. 

“We've been through so much in Lebanon, but never to this scale,” said Layla, who grew up in Beirut before moving to Guelph in 2003. “This was just so shocking. It's unbelievable.”

Layla’s parents and siblings, as well as multiple cousins, aunts and uncles all live in Beirut. She says her family is safe, but that some of their homes were damaged. 

“Luckily, they didn't get physically hurt. They lost some windows and some doors, which we're grateful it's not more, but from talking to my family and seeing the videos, there's a real need for help right now.”

Layla’s brother is a medical student in Beirut and he had been interning at one of the hospitals that was destroyed in the blast but was transferred to another hospital before the explosion. Within moments of hearing news of the explosion, Layla recalls waiting several agonizing minutes before she heard that he was safe.

“Those five minutes between me calling and me getting that he was not [at the hospital] … those were the worst minutes of my life,” she said.  

Her brother is now providing emergency medical care in the aftermath of the explosion, and Layla says the suffering is unimaginable.

“Not only did the hospitals get destroyed, we lost doctors, nurses … and at the same time there’s COVID. It’s such a bad, bad situation.”

All of the funds raised will be sent to Layla’s cousin, Khouloud Fawaz, an activist and public health expert in Beirut. Fawaz has worked with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and UNICEF and is now organizing grassroots relief and coordinating aid for the most vulnerable. 

“The money will not be given to any government organizations because the Lebanese Government is known to be very corrupt,” Layla said. “We were going to donate to the Red Cross but they are getting donations from everywhere around the world … and the volunteers on the ground are working from morning to night. They need hard hats, gloves and brooms. Some families don't have diapers and formula for their babies …people have to come together and help each other.”

According to the GoFundMe page that went live on August 13, some of the items that will be purchased with the funds include diapers, baby formula, goggles, hard hats, gloves, food, water, cooking supplies, and plastic sheets to cover the windows of damaged homes. The United Nations has estimated approximately 300,000 people have been displaced in Beirut as the country faces a looming humanitarian crisis amid economic collapse, political turmoil and a rising number of COVID-19 deaths and infections. 

Joe and Layla have four sons, and Layla says she’s grateful that she was able to bring her eldest sons, aged 14 and 16, to Lebanon back in January. 

“They saw the beauty of the country and they know what we lost. The only way I can explain it living abroad … it's like a piece of my soul got hurt.”

Retour Bistro is located on 150 Wellington St East and is open for take-out from Monday to Friday from 4 p.m to 8 p.m.