Ian Abinakle Isn’t Waiting for a Miracle
On August 4, 2020, the fifth most powerful explosion of all time completely destroyed the port of Beirut, Lebanon. One year later, the lives of residents remain severely impacted by the historic disaster that ensued. It’s an unbelievable tragedy where no one was spared, including the LGBTQ+ communities that Lebanese-born Montrealer Ian Abinakle wants so desperately to help.
A simple stroll through the Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael neighbourhoods in Beirut is absolutely heart wrenching, as these once safe havens for Beirut’s LGBTQ+ communities are now nothing but a wasteland. Many of the city’s queer residents had no choice but to leave their homes. Some have found refuge with family and friends who have no idea of their sexual orientation, let alone their love life. For thousands of these disaster victims, this could literally be the beginning of the end.
Montrealer Ian Abinakle knows Lebanon like the back of his hand. He grew up there before immigrating to Canada in the 1980s. He vividly remembers his father’s very last words on the phone to him, a 20-year-old gay man living in the Quebec metropolis: “I’m coming to Montreal to slit your throat!”
Fortunately, that blood-curdling threat from his father never dampened Ian’s spirits. Since that time, he has dedicated a good part of his life to organizing LGBTQ+ Pride celebrations, including the Divers/Cité Festivals in Montreal and Green Space in Toronto.
In fact, Ian is just back from a trip to Lebanon, where he met victims of the explosion in LGBTQ+ communities there. He did everything he possibly could to alleviate the needless suffering that ignorance and Lebanon’s archaic social system inflict on people just for being different. In addition to his personal caregiving, Ian has also set up a remarkable fundraising campaign to help out the many victims still in dire need of support. His efforts include telling some of the many heartbreaking stories he heard so that they’re no longer left untold.
How did the idea for the Cœurs en Éclat (Shattered Hearts) fundraising campaign come about?
“It was born out of a profound desire to help a marginalized segment of the Lebanese population whose pre-existing problems were greatly exacerbated by the explosion: an economy on the verge of collapse, a government providing zero support, a totally corrupt political system, and a health crisis made even worse by the COVID-19 pandemic…with rampant homophobia and transphobia thrown in for good measure!
“Even today, many LGBTQ+ victims cannot get the help they need simply because of who they are. Deprived of even the essentials of life, they are a forgotten people in a forgotten land. I want to help them in any way I can by giving them a voice so they can be heard, seen, and understood at last.”
Was it the explosion that gave you the idea?
“The basic idea was percolating in my mind for months and it suddenly became crystal clear on my birthday, April 17…and I knew deep inside I had to go for it! Into a second year of pandemic isolation and a restricted social life intensified by digital hyperconnectivity, my soul was heavy with the unbearable feeling of being useless, of no longer being able to play my part in contributing to society.
“When I fully understood the gravity of the tragedy in the land where I was born, I knew I had to do something to make things better. I also knew that I had to get the message about the critical situation in Beirut out to the international LGBTQ+ community to get the ball rolling. After all, no one can better understand the problems of a marginalized people than a marginalized worldwide community.
I know this from my own personal experience. As a young man I felt my destiny was to teach French literature in Lebanon.
“But life had other plans that took me to Montreal, where I was drawn into entertainment, event planning, and grassroots activism. My journey included promoting diversity, inclusion, and equity through music and art, and in my involvement with LGBTQ+ Pride organizations. I was director of the Divers/Cité Montreal Festival for over 15 years, producer of the Green Space Festival for the 519 Community Centre in Toronto for 12 years, and organizer of many major fundraising events.
“I was lucky to be able to see the positive impact my work had on individuals and, more broadly, on the community. And now the time had come for me to do my part for the Beirut community, too."
You went to Beirut to meet many explosion victims firsthand. What was it like?
“I contacted as many of my old and new friends as I could, anyone who might share my interest and concerns. MOSAIC, the LGBTQ+ organization in Beirut, offered me their offices and their help in organizing meetings and interviews. Since MOSAIC was very active on the ground, their list of people in need was a long one indeed.
“For many weeks, I listened to my LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters to get their stories down on paper in both French and English. With a videographer friend of mine, I also made a number of videoclips. Everything can be accessed at thequeerproject.org and @shatteredhearts.leb on Facebook and Instagram.”
How will the funds raised be used?
“Donations will provide direct assistance to affected victims. It was determined that 6000 CAD would provide one victim with relief for six months, enough to cover rent, food, clothing, and transportation. Thanks to the devaluation of the Lebanese pound, the estimate for replacing furniture and appliances would be about 5000 CAD. Laptops and smartphones, essential in some cases, were evaluated at current market prices in Lebanon: 600 CAD for a laptop and 700 CAD for a reasonable quality phone. The cost of emergency medical care also had to be factored in sometimes.”
What can members of the public do to help?
“Start by visiting thequeerproject.org. Donors have two options: support the fundraising campaign in general or target a specific need. Sharing stories, in print or videoclips, can be a big help, too. Especially during Pride festivities in Montreal, as a crucial reminder that all is not well in the LGBTQ+ world. But together we can make a difference and make the world a better place for everyone in the process.”