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An aid kitchen in Gaza is trying to stay afloat amidst growing restrictions

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The Israeli military is operating in Rafah. That's the city in Gaza's south, the site of the border crossing with Egypt through which much of the international food aid passes. That crossing is closed now, making what was already a humanitarian crisis worse. NPR's Jane Arraf and Anas Baba report on how one U.S. aid organization is coping.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIQUID SIMMERING)

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Huge pots of stock simmer at one of the new Rebuilding Alliance kitchens, relocated from Rafah to Deir al-Balah in Central Gaza.

ANAS BABA, BYLINE: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: NPR's Anas Baba asks Chef Hussam Ayash about that day's dish.

HUSSAM AYASH: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: "It's macaroni," he says. No, there's no protein, just macaroni.

(CROSSTALK)

ARRAF: They're trying hard, but it's nothing like the network of kitchens they had in Rafah. There, the small aid organization, with the help of the U.N.'S World Food Programme, was dishing out eggplant and chickpea stew, rice and fresh bread.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIQUID SIMMERING)

ARRAF: Over the 21 years it has operated in Gaza, Rebuilding Alliance has created a network of aid kitchens, many of them focused on employing women.

(CROSSTALK)

ARRAF: After the Gaza war started, as malnutrition spread, it managed to serve 100,000 meals a day. Many of those were in Rafah. Last month, Israel, saying it needed to root out the miltant group Hamas, took control of the Rafah Border Crossing, and aid stopped coming through. And Israel started bombing. Rafeek al-Mahdoun (ph) is the Rebuilding Alliance program manager.

RAFEEK AL-MAHDOUN: We moved our stock from our warehouse to more safer areas. We distributed it to the cooking points in order not to keep big quantities in one place. The other thing - we wanted to keep our people safe. For that reason, we asked them to move.

ARRAF: Here, many of the staff live in homemade tents. There's a dangerous shortage of drinking water. Even if people had food to cook, there's very little fuel to cook it with.

(CROSSTALK)

ARRAF: Rebuilding Alliance is using compressed wood it receives from World Central Kitchen. In Rafah, groups of women mixed dough and rolled it out to bake fresh bread with every meal. But here, al-Mahdoun says there isn't enough fuel. Like most aid groups now, Rebuilding Alliance has formed partnerships to take advantage of a patchwork of supplies.

AL-MAHDOUN: One of our partners managed to get three tons of salt and six tons of vegetable oil. But we need another ingredients to make food.

ARRAF: Although Israel reopened a small border crossing, it's used mainly for commercial traders rather than aid trucks. Vegetables are now for sale in the markets here. But al-Mahdoun says not many people can afford them.

AL-MAHDOUN: We need lentils. We need peas. We need wheat flour. We need rice. We need bread. We need vegetables. We need everything.

ARRAF: Al-Mahdoun said they were serving about 55,000 meals a day. Now a week later, that's almost doubled, and their biggest Rafah kitchen has reopened in Deir al-Balah. Apart from hunger and lack of shelter, he says, the biggest impact for families displaced over and over is what it has done to their spirits.

AL-MAHDOUN: I see people who just move but are not concentrating or focusing on anything. If you ask him, what do you need? - he say, I don't know. What is your plan? I don't know. What do you like to help you? He say, I don't know.

ARRAF: At one of the relocated kitchens, Nahya Ayash, known as Um Tahsin, was trying to build the cooking facilities back up, despite the lack of supplies or equipment. When she fled Rafah, she took five cooking pots with her. She burned the family photo albums in case Israeli soldiers entered their house. She says after seeing social media posts of soldiers displaying women's lingerie from homes they had entered, she did not want them looking at family photos of women.

NAHYA AYASH: (Through interpreter) I burned my personal pictures in case someone comes into my house and does something bad to them. It was a very difficult feeling to burn your memories.

ARRAF: And then she packed up her pots and left for Deir al-Balah. There's nothing you can do but keep living, she says,. That and help others to survive. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Amman. 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.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.
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