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(Fixes translation of charity name in paragraph 6)
By Ayat Basma and Issam Abdallah
BEIRUT (Reuters) - The sheer scale of the destruction in Beirut's Karantina district after the massive explosion at the port last August made rebuilding a daunting feat. That was where Marc Torbey El Helou, a charity worker, came in.
The low-income neighbourhood was one of the closest to the blast that killed 200 people. It stands across from the giant, mutilated grain silo that has become a symbol of the tragedy.
Helou decided a day after the explosion to dedicate himself, and the aid group he runs, to rebuilding the neighbourhood.
Just removing the rubble required 300 truckloads. Some buildings needed immediate help to stop them collapsing. Helou says the same of Karantina's residents. "There were children here who would not laugh or play for months."
The neighbourhood is home to Lebanese, Syrian and other residents, a fire brigade and dozens of stores selling everything from car parts to clay pots. All were hit hard.
Helou's charity, Offre Joie (Joy of Giving), has repaired Lebanese districts hit by war and violence since 1985.
"Unfortunately, it means we have the experience for this," said Helou, 33, who has used a wheelchair since a diving accident in 2016.
With the Lebanese state hollowed out by decades of corruption and failure, it fell to aid groups and volunteers like Helou to rebuild the city.
Offre Joie took on six blocks in Karantina and nearby. That includes the homes of about 350 families.
More than seven months after the explosion, one of the largest non-nuclear detonations on record, many residents have yet to return. But the streets are bustling with life again, and the buildings never looked so good.
IN THE RUBBLE
"We never dreamed we'd have a neighbourhood like this. I have called it the French neighbourhood because it looks like the elegant streets in France," said Vera Yaghelian, 75, pointing from her balcony to facades painted in bright pastel colours.
"Look, there's nothing more beautiful."
Born in Karantina, the mother of four never left, even during the massacres of Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.
When she sees Helou with teams of volunteers and engineers, she often sends over coffee.
As Helou roams the streets on his electric wheelchair, construction crews get to work and residents stop to say hello.
One woman asks about government compensation promised but not received. Another asks about the renovation of her kitchen cabinets, and a third about the roof of her patio.
"Without you, we would still be living in the rubble," she tells him.
Helou said that after the blast, he was determined not to let his spinal cord injury stop him. "I understood that I had a mission now and I'm on it."