In the wake of a massive explosion that devastated Beirut, 93-year-old Yolande Labaki sought a way to help bring healing to the Lebanese capital.

The internationally recognised painter's solution was to make dolls - 100 of them, distributed to children traumatised or otherwise affected by the destruction.

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Sama Chlawuit, left, and her sister Sima-Rita, whose family home had the windows blown out during August's massive explosion in Beirut, hold their dolls at their grandfather's home, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday, 29th December, 2020. After the explosion, painter Yolande Labaki made 100 dolls for children affected by the destruction. PICTURE: AP Photo/Hussein Malla.

Her inspiration was another Lebanese tragedy, etched in her memory: the look on the face of one of her grandchildren, then about three, when his home was damaged during the country’s 1975-1990 civil war. 

“He saw all his toys on the ground amid the rubble and asked me: ‘Who broke my toys?’ His eyes were filled with tears,” she said. 

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In this photo provided by Lebanese painter Yolande Labaki, Labaki, 93, holds dolls at her house in Beirut, Lebanon, on Monday, 16th November, 2020, that she made to be distributed to children who might have lost their toys amid the destruction or who had otherwise had their lives touched by the Beirut seaport blast in August 2020. PICTURE: Yolande Labaki via AP.


“I said: ‘God, if you give me the power, I will make 100 of these by Christmas'."

- Yolande Labaki

So when a huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate stored at the Beirut port ignited and blew up on 4th August, killing more than 200 people, injuring thousands and leaving a swath of the city in ruins - Labaki thought of the children, and how “they, too, must be asking who broke their toys".

Labaki gave herself a challenge, and a deadline. 

“I said: ‘God, if you give me the power, I will make 100 of these by Christmas,’” she recalled. 

And thus began a months-long labour of love. 

Getting the doll’s face just right - she wanted to make sure it wouldn’t scare the children - was difficult. The great-grandmother painstakingly embroidered features using a sewing machine, stuffed fabric with cotton and tailored tiny dresses. And then non-governmental organisations helped distribute the dolls.

Two went to the daughters of Beirut resident Georges Chlawuit. The blast blew out windows at the family home, he said. 

“At least she thought of these poor kids after what has happened in the explosion,” he said. “May God keep her and give her good health. If it weren’t for how the Lebanese people came together, we wouldn’t have been able to stand back on our feet again.” 

His daughters, he said, have been sleeping with their new dolls. 

Labaki’s reward: photos with the beaming faces of girls who received her dolls. 

“It’s a gift for me more so than it is for the children,” she said.