When Islamic studies minor Gabby Conforti ’22 first heard about the devastating explosion at the port of Beirut on August 4, which ravaged neighborhoods across the city, she was shocked.
“My initial reaction was one of disbelief,” she said. “I immediately reached out to my friends in Beirut and was relieved to learn that they were all safe. Yet the same could not be said for many others.”
Conforti, who had spent four months studying history, Arabic, and regional politics at the American University of Beirut last fall, yearned to help in any way she could. After learning that the explosion had killed hundreds of people, injured thousands, and left hundreds of thousands homeless, she began thinking of ways she could make a difference.
She reached out to several students who she had studied with in Beirut, including international relations major Katie Jonsson ’22 and alumnus Aidan Salamone ’19, as well as Mariel Povolny, a student at McGill University. After brainstorming a few different ideas, they decided to launch a biking fundraiser, called Biking for Beirut, to support victims of the blast.
“Our hope was to mobilize our communities at home and at Stanford, who might not otherwise have a connection with Lebanon, to support the NGOs working on the ground in Beirut,” Conforti explained.
Together, they created a GoFundMe page to collect donations and started an Instagram account to share resources and information about the evolving situation. “On our Instagram, we’ve also been including interviews and stories featuring Lebanese voices. We don’t want to stifle those voices or speak for them,” Conforti emphasized.
Initially, they set a goal of $5,000 but hit that target within days. To date, they have raised over $23,000, and donations are continuing to pour in. The fundraiser is supporting three organizations in Lebanon: the Lebanese Red Cross, Baytna Baytak, and Egna Legna Besidet.
The Lebanese Red Cross, which is the main provider of ambulance services in Lebanon, helped treat and transport many of the victims of the blast. Baytna Baytak, a charity that provided shelter to health care workers during the coronavirus pandemic, is focused on relocating displaced people who lost their homes. Egna Legna Besidet is providing food, shelter, and other services to domestic workers in Beirut.
In September, the organizers completed their bike trips separately in four states across the United States: Washington, Montana, Illinois, and New Jersey. They each pledged to cycle 70 miles for a total of 280 miles, the length of traveling up and back down Lebanon’s coastline.
“We wanted the number to have significance,” explained Conforti, who did the bike ride in her hometown of Chicago.
While completing the ride along the city’s Lakefront Trail, Conforti thought of the memories she made while studying abroad in Beirut, and the people impacted by the tragedy. The blast came at a particularly turbulent time for Lebanon, which was already grappling with significant economic and political turmoil.
During her time in Beirut, Conforti witnessed several anti-government protests, which erupted across the country in October 2019 in response to its financial crisis. The widespread civil unrest became the subject of many discussions with her peers and professors. She observed tens of thousands of Lebanese taking to the streets to call for the resignation of the country’s leaders.
“Many of my most vivid memories are of attending these protests. Martyr’s Square in Beirut was the epicenter of the city’s protests. On the biggest days of the protests, a sea of Lebanese flags would spill out in all directions, and the chant, ‘All of them means all of them’ would reverberate around the square,” shared Conforti.
The outbreak of coronavirus had curbed the protests, but the country continued to teeter on the brink of economic collapse, and the lethal blast was viewed by many as the result of years of government corruption and negligence.
“The anti-government movement has been revitalized in the wake of the explosion,” she said. “Yet, I hope that statistics about Lebanon’s economy do not obscure the human tragedy of the country’s economic collapse. The pain the Lebanese are experiencing is unimaginable, and the uncertainty that they face is daunting.”
As she completed the final leg of her nine-hour bike ride, Conforti became emotional thinking about the people in Beirut.
“The fundraiser is the most important initiative I’ve ever led, and it was a really incredible feeling when I was biking that last mile back home to know that we had made such an impact,” she shared. “In the end, it was a really moving experience.”
Conforti, who is taking a gap year to work as a research assistant at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is studying political science and minoring in global studies (with a specialization in Islamic studies) and history. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a career focused on human rights, politics, and security in the Middle East.
To make a donation to Biking for Beirut, please visit this website.