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Finding beauty in Lebanon’s broken buildings

Designer Benedicte de Blavous Moubarak went on a very big shopping trip before Christmas — to junkyards in Beirut.

She had a lot of things to buy. Shattered doors. Broken window frames. Old railings. Wrought iron gates. Wooden arches. And other architectural elements from stately, albeit crumbling, Lebanese homes that were destroyed, she said, “because of the war or because of greed.”

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Moubarak, who moved to Cambridge from Lebanon in September, is a familiar presence in Lebanese salvage yards. What she buys will be incorporated into her one-of-a-kind home furnishings line, and sold through 2b design, a company on Mount Auburn Street she cofounded with her husband, Raja.

The couple’s ambitious agenda is to sell home furnishings, while preserving Lebanon’s cultural and architectural heritage, improving lives, and promoting reconciliation and understanding.

Chef Jody Adams has bought lamps from their collection for her restaurant Rialto. “I think [the company has] a very compelling story,” Adams said. “They’re preserving architectural artifacts from Beirut and employing people who are underemployed. If, as a consumer, I can purchase something to keep the circle going, that’s a win situation for everybody.”

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In short, 2b design is both a business and a social enterprise. Products are handmade in Lebanon by marginalized, disadvantaged people from diverse religious groups that have sometimes fought against each other during Lebanon’s wars. She’d see a piece of an ornate wrought iron railing and imagine an elegant lamp base. An arch would suggest a decorative wall hanging. Doors made from juniper wood were perfect for coffee tables. “I can see beauty everywhere,” she said. “Even in the worst broken house.”

To Benedicte and her husband and business partner, Raja, life is about restoring unseen beauty into things that are broken.

“Broken items. Broken heritage. Broken people. And broken reconciliation,” said Benedicte, meaning reconciliation between ethnic and religious groups. By selling Middle Eastern products to Western customers, they also want to build bridges between East and West. Now they are working on replicating the model in the United States.

Their new home base is an unassuming showroom and retail shop called Beyt. (It means “home” in Arabic and in Hebrew, too, just with a slight pronunciation difference.) They’re hoping it will be the first store of many they open across the country. They’re also planning to start their first workshop in Boston, hiring homeless women to help manufacture some of their products.

“We’re swimming against the tide at a time when US companies are outsourcing their work,” said Raja Moubarak. “It’s a financial risk because it costs more to produce things in the US. But it carries meaning. . . . We want to be a values-driven business, not just profit-driven, to be truly transformational.”

Susanna Snyder, an assistant professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, said she planned to bring her students to the shop to hear a presentation on the company’s business model. She teaches a course about how social justice, the arts, and faith can intersect, “and this is precisely what in some ways Raja and his wife are doing,” she said. “It’s a real model of how you can integrate faith with a commitment to social justice and [have] a viable economic enterprise.”

Raja and Benedicte are both 51 or, as Benedicte likes to say, “just starting over at 51.” Raja, who grew up in Beirut, is half Lebanese, half French. He has a business degree and spent much of his career working for US multinational corporations around the world, including Coca-Cola. He met Benedicte in Paris in 1991.

Benedicte, who is French, is a lifelong idealist with an artsy bent. She’d spent a decade traveling the world, drawn to slums and shantytowns in places as diverse as Africa, Thailand, Burma, Nepal; she worked in missions and orphanages and with Mother Teresa’s team in Calcutta. Passionate about design and craft, she sought out craftspeople everywhere she went.

Raja’s job kept them moving, and they lived in Cyprus, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia. Benedicte began designing furniture, lamps, and other home decor items. In 2003 they decided to make another, dramatic move, to Raja’s homeland, Lebanon. “After 20 years of civil war, we thought the country was reviving from the ashes,” said Benedicte. “We wanted to be part of a new Lebanon.”

Raja started a consulting firm to develop socially conscious international companies in the Middle East. Benedicte started 2b design, sifting through junkyards around Beirut and later Syria for raw materials — architectural salvage from homes from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, some of it inspired by Venetian and Ottoman architecture. Many of the houses had been destroyed during the civil war, others by zealous developers eager to raze the old to make way for the new. “The government doesn’t really take care of its heritage,” Benedicte said.

But the salvage was a treasure trove. Benedicte managed day-to-day operations of the tiny company while Raja oversaw marketing and development. Their team now includes an iron worker who can’t speak and is partially paralyzed (“still, he is very precise,” she said), and a blacksmith injured during the civil war. Workers include Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, and Armenians.

In 2005, Lebanon’s powerful former prime minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated, plunging the country into a spiral of political crises and acts of violence. In the summer of 2006, a war broke out between Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim armed group, and Israel.

“It was a new cycle of nightmare,” Benedicte said. Bridges were bombed and the airport closed. The couple was separated from their young daughters, who were vacationing with relatives in France. Ultimately, Benedicte and Raja also fled to France, evacuated by the French Embassy. When the war ended, Raja returned to Lebanon to run the country’s largest department store chain. Benedicte and the girls joined him a year later. “We felt our story wasn’t finished with Lebanon,” Raja said.

Eventually, though, the chaos of life in Lebanon wore them down, especially the daily struggles just to get a working Internet connection, working phones, and electricity. “Everything is against you,” Benedicte said. “You have to fight against corruption. No one helps you. Daily life is so hard — nothing works properly.”

They wanted to keep 2b design going in Lebanon, in order to supply finished products to Europe. But they decided to uproot their family and move to the US to take advantage of the sizable furniture market. They thought the Boston area, where there is high interest in social and environmental issues, would be perfect. “We thought [people] would be receptive to our message,” Raja said.

They arrived in Cambridge in September and quickly settled in. Two of their daughters go to Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, while their oldest attends Northeastern University. They rented a former architect’s office, and in no time turned it into Beyt, filling it with tables, fireplace screens, lamps, and other items constructed from reclaimed remnants of Lebanese architecture, and shipped here from Lebanon. They hung huge photos on the wall of the artisans. The plan is to hire local people to fabricate lamp shades and wire the lamps, and they’ve begun discussions with a local homeless shelter.

“It’s an incredibly admirable venture,” said Eva Bellin, professor of Arab politics at Brandeis University. “It sounds like it’s motivated by humanism, which often seems to be in short supply in that region.”

The Moubaraks say they love it here: It’s peaceful, the electricity always works, and the neighbors are welcoming and encouraging. “We are seeing an amazing engagement,” said Raja. One customer is trying to help them find workers who are homeless.

Raja said they hope to inspire other retailers with their social and environmental message. “Someone told me we could become the next Restoration Hardware,” he said. “But that’s not the point. The point is to make an impact beyond making money.”

Linda Matchan can be reached at L_Matchan@globe.com.
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