Peoria area has over 8,000 Lebanese-Americans; Beirut explosion sends shock waves to Central Illinois

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BEIRUT (WMBD) — The deadly explosion in Beirut, Lebanon sent shock waves across the world, felt right here in Central Illinois.

Reports said there could be as many as 300,000 people homeless. Many thought the explosion was an atomic bomb, causing Beirut, the Capitol of Lebanon in the Middle East, to be declared in a State of Emergency by the nation’s president Michel Aoun.

Former Congressman and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told WMBD what he heard from Beruit on the potential cause of Tuesday’s explosion, which killed at least 135 people and injured 5,000.

“I’ve talked to some people who were on the ground and have talked to folks in Lebanon,” Ray said.

Ray, a third-generation Lebanese-American, said Beruit, which is right next to the port, is a beautiful city. He said the explosion was devastating for the Lebanese.

“Apparently what happened was, there was a building with some fireworks in it that caught fire. The actual fire department was there, trying to put that fire out. Then somehow the flames escaped to the other part of the building where the chemicals were being stored. That’s what caused the huge explosion that most people said sounded like an atomic bomb,” Ray said.

Ray said part of the blame should be on the Lebanese government.

“Apparently they were storing these chemicals there because they took them off a ship that was transporting them illegally, stored them there, and then obviously forgot about it,” Ray said. “These chemicals have been there probably 5-10 years. It’s clearly a flaw on the part of the government not to have realized that those chemicals were there and it could’ve caused a massive explosion.”

He said this explosion is another devastating blow to a country that was already going through a tough time.

“Lebanon is going through a terrible economic downturn in part because of the collapse of the banking community and in part because of the COVID virus,” Ray said.

“Lebanon’s in kind of a tough neighborhood. They’re next to Israel, they have Hezbollah, the Iranian terrorist group in the southern part of the country. They have over 1 million refugees from Syria in the country. This is the last thing they needed to happen in Lebanon. To have almost 100 people killed, damage to houses in a wide area.”

Ray LaHood | Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation

Ray said the Lebanese people have been through tough times before, and they’ll get through this all the same.

“The Lebanese people are very resilient people, they’ve been through a lot. They’ve been through war, they’ve been through changes in government. They’ll come back from this. Lebanese Americans in this country are reaching out. I bet you I’ve gotten ten emails from people doing fundraising to try and help the families who are now homeless. For the families who have lost loved ones, trying to prepare for funerals,” Ray said.

He said since he was elected to Congress in 1994, he had been to Lebanon over 25 times.

“I know a lot of the leadership there. The President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the House, Members of Parliament. I’ve seen them go through a lot of turmoil in the country,” Ray said.

Ray said the Peoria area has a very strong Lebanese population.

“Our community here revolves around two organizations. The Itoo Club, which is named after the village my grandparents came from in 1985. And a lot of our cousins, aunts, and uncles belong to that organization. And also the St. Sharbel Maronite Church. We’ve had a pastor there for over 30 years, Father Elia. People are really pulling together in Peoria and reaching out primarily in terms of trying to raise some money, raise awareness, and rallying around the idea that we feel a kinship,” Ray added.

Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis said the Lebanese-American population is one of the anchors in Central Illinois.

“There are a lot of really hard-working people who didn’t just come here to make a good living, they’ve also given so much back to the community,” Mayor Ardis said. “We have a lot of families with Lebanese descent who have come to be enormous leaders in our community.”

Mayor Ardis said he received messages from people on Wednesday of people who are very concerned about friends and relatives who live in Lebanon.

While Beirut is over 6,200 miles away from Peoria, LaHood and Ardis said the ties between the two cities are very strong.

“Many families in Peoria have loved ones. They have mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins. There’s a lot of family members that have family here in Peoria. There will be a huge reach out from Central Illinois back to Beirut,” Ray said.

“Your connections in this area could make a big difference in terms of knowing people around the world,” Mayor Ardis said. “Lebanon is not a huge country and Peoria is not a huge city, so it’s very likely we’re all going to know someone personally or know someone who has close ties with relatives there.”

WMBD spoke with Congressman Darin LaHood (R-IL), Ray’s son, on Wednesday. Darin said he hopes the United States can provide support for Lebanon after the deadly explosion.

“I take great pride in my Lebanese heritage and the strong Lebanese American community we have in greater Peoria,” Darin said. 

“The explosion that took place yesterday in Beirut is tragic and my condolences go out to the injured and the families who lost loved ones. Now more than ever, the United States’ support for a sovereign and independent Lebanon is critical. As the chair of the U.S.-Lebanon Friendship Caucus, I will continue to engage with my colleagues in Congress, the White House, and the State Department to ensure that our friends in Lebanon get the support they need in response to this tragedy.”

The greater Peoria area is home to over 8,000 Lebanese Americans, one of the largest Lebanese populations in the country. Congressman LaHood’s great-grandparents immigrated to the United States from the village of Aitou in Northern Lebanon. The U.S. is home to over 14,000 immigrants from Aitou, many of whom live in Peoria, Illinois. Those immigrants created what is today the Itoo Society in 1914.

Many countries around the world have pitched in to help in recovery and assistance in Beirut. You can find the story here.

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