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In North Gaza, a local soup kitchen tries to compensate for hunger amid dwindling aid

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We start this hour with northern Gaza where conditions are rapidly deteriorating. Disease is spreading, and the United Nations has warned that famine is imminent. Last week, the arrival of aid trucks in Gaza City caused more misery. Gaza health authorities said Israeli soldiers killed more than 100 Palestinians trying to get that food. Israel says its forces only fired when the crowds put them in danger. Now, the U.S. is using airplanes to drop food to Palestinians as an alternative to such confrontations. Hani Almadhoun is director of philanthropy for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, UNRWA, or UNRWA. He joins us from New York. Thank you for being with us.

HANI ALMADHOUN: Well, thank you for having me. I appreciate the opportunity.

RASCOE: Hani, I just want to start with this incident on Thursday. I know that, you know, you have family in northern Gaza. Do you know anyone killed or injured?

ALMADHOUN: Luckily, this area is not where my family is. And it's unfortunate that a lot of people lost their lives or were killed. Frankly, this area is five minutes away from my own apartment. So some of these folks are my neighbors and, you know, people that I've interacted with and so many of them are desperate for food. And it's just heartbreaking to see.

RASCOE: As you know, the United States and over a dozen countries cut off funding to UNRWA after Israeli authorities said some people employed by UNRWA in Gaza were involved in the October 7 attack. Those staff members have since been fired and an investigation by the U.N. is still ongoing. Has the funding cut off affected UNRWA's operations in Gaza or elsewhere?

ALMADHOUN: Yes, absolutely. This is just - you understand, the situation in Gaza has gone beyond the dire description. So it is important that the largest humanitarian inside Gaza right now, which is UNRWA, is able to have the resources they need to provide shelter, food and services for folks who are struggling.

RASCOE: And so I understand that your parents and your siblings are still in northern Gaza. You know, how are they doing?

ALMADHOUN: Yeah. Yeah. It's - you know, in the last two months I've been seeing videos and reports from my family grinding pigeon food and rabbit food to just survive. And not enough aid is getting into the north. And, you know, I got tired of waiting. And so this came the idea of a soup kitchen that we started by my brother. What has happened is when some elements of the IDF pulled back from the north, so they were able to get to farms. So the, for example, purchase things like overgrown zucchinis. These zucchinis were supposed to be very tiny, but because nobody picked them in the last six weeks or two months, they were huge. They were pumpkin-sized. So they're not good for many things. So my brother would buy them for a premium and then just cook them up for people in the neighborhood. There is a kind of a green called khubeza in Arabic, which is in season. It's basically a leafy green that grows naturally. It looks like kale if you see it, but...

RASCOE: I do see it. Yeah, I think I've seen some pictures of it. It does look like kale. It's like greens. And I see big pots of it.

ALMADHOUN: And it's one of the cheaper items. So we figured, you know, potatoes were, like, 10 times the price what they would pay otherwise. Sometimes they will find canned mushrooms somewhere. They will add it. They improvise. And he said in the first day, 120 families showed up.

RASCOE: Yeah, I have pictures and videos that you sent in. And so I see some of the crowds.

(CROSSTALK)

RASCOE: You said it was 120 on the first day?

ALMADHOUN: First day. Yeah.

RASCOE: Yeah. And how many more have come since then?

ALMADHOUN: It's up to 200 families a day now.

RASCOE: And I mean, in a lot of the videos, I mean, you can clearly hear children and see children, you know, asking for food, asking for some soup. And you can, you know, really see the desperation in these videos.

ALMADHOUN: Yes. It's heartbreaking. You know, he tells me, like, maybe in the first day, 10 people did not get food, the next day 20 people. So he said, hey, let me get another pot. And remember, the banks are closed. They're all bombed. So right now I - my - one of my sisters is in the south and in the south there is some facilities, some foreign exchange shop. So she's able to pick up money I send her. And somebody in the north, their sister in the south - they need to send her money. We say, hey, don't send the money to her. Give it to my brother and we will give her the money in the south. So we try to do workarounds to make sure that our family has money to fund, to eat, and too to help other people.

RASCOE: Can you talk about why your family remains in the north?

ALMADHOUN: Yeah. So the trauma of the Nakba is too real for my parents.

RASCOE: And the Nakba is the 1948 mass displacement of Palestinians.

ALMADHOUN: Correct. They're like, no. We - my - our ancestors left before - they never came back. And, you know, like, my grandfather - he left the town of called Ashkelon, Ashkelon. He literally left a chicken in the oven. And he thought the next day he's coming back to eat it. And he's never tasted that chicken. So those trauma were too real for my family. They stuck it - they've paid heavily for this decision. You know, they buried their grandkids. They're burying - they buried kids. My mom just buried her brother. I - every morning I used to wake up, and I do not want to wake up. I do not want to open my eyes because of this trauma and depression we're all dealing with. But the moment we started this kitchen, I wake up every day seeing positive images and something that an individual like me is able to do something for people that I love, I care about and I trust.

RASCOE: That's Hani Almadhoun. He is the director of philanthropy at UNRWA USA. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

ALMADHOUN: Thank you for giving me the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.