Feeding smiles: As Gaza starves, Palestinians rise to the occasion to feed thousands of hungry mouths

Rebuilding Alliance, in partnership with the World Food Programme, has teamed up with local chefs to serve hot meals to displaced Palestinians in Gaza.
Published April 12, 2024

Lama, a 19-year-old Palestinian, has been displaced thrice since October last year when Israel began its relentless bombardment of Gaza. Once an aspiring business student, she now runs a kitchen in Rafah’s Tal Al Sultan area, providing hot meals to hundreds of people free of cost.

“Families in Gaza have had no source of income since the beginning of the war, and it is very difficult to get a decent meal,” she lamented. “A warm meal has become a distant dream for children and adults.”

In its recent report, Integrated Food-Security Phase Classification, the global hunger monitor, said famine was projected in Gaza by May sans an immediate ceasefire and surge of aid.

It described the food shortages as the worst it had ever witnessed anywhere. More than half of Gaza’s population — far more than the 20 per cent associated with famine — is already experiencing the worst level of food shortage, category 5 or “catastrophe”.

“Virtually all households are already skipping meals every day and adults are reducing their meals so that children can eat,” the World Health Organisation highlighted, adding that children in Gaza are dying from the combined effects of malnutrition and disease.

As she shifted from one refugee camp to the other, Lama witnessed how managing a single meal a day had became a daunting task. Last year’s iftar feasts were now just a distant memory.

“Our days in Gaza for the last five months have been filled with fear, loss and great fatigue. We fear how we will sleep tonight. Will we sleep? And what sound will we wake up to?” she said.

Lama serves hot meals to children in Gaza.
Lama serves hot meals to children in Gaza.

Amid these desperate times, there is one thing that makes Lama forget her exhaustion and overcome her anxiety — seeing a child smile after receiving a meal. It makes her want to do more to help others, which has been possible with the support of the Rebuilding Alliance.

From one Palestinian to the other

The non-profit organisation, in partnership with the World Food Programme (WFP), has been serving hot meals to the people of Gaza since the beginning of the conflict. In February, it was able to reach the milestone of feeding 100,000 Palestinians in a day.

Rebuilding Alliance, under its campaign, ‘By the Hands of Your People’, funds field kitchens across the coastal enclave, run by hired community chefs and local NGOs. This is not the first time though. The organisation has been supporting community kitchens and doing much more in Gaza for over 20 years.

In October last year, at least 4,000 meals were served every day, said Adam Ramadan, the deputy director of Rebuilding Alliance. This number increased to 50,000 meals a day in February.

“Currently, we have 30 kitchens operating across Gaza … they are located in Rafah, Deir al-Balah and even in the north where the situation is the worst,” he told Dawn.com.

But how is the organisation, which is headquartered in the US, funding these kitchens in the current circumstances?

The deputy director of Rebuilding Alliance explained that the WFP provided the kitchens with essential food items such as flour and lentils. For items such as vegetables and meat, Adam said the NGO was in touch with vendors willing to deal with them on a credit basis.

“Once we collect our donations, we pay them,” he said, adding that these were the perks his NGO, unlike others working in the enclave, enjoyed because of its two-decade-long history.

Heba, an architect based in Gaza, took charge as the programme coordinator for Rebuilding Alliance after she lost her house to Israeli bombing. She coordinates with local NGOs, cooking teams and kitchens across the city.

“Each partner NGO has nine or 10 kitchen points. Some are cooking points, others are baking points as they only prepare bread, and some do both cooking and baking. There are central kitchens, home-based kitchens, field kitchens, and bakeries,” she explained.

Once the meals are prepared, Heba went on to say, they are distributed among people of all ages. “It is truly a relief for them. Many families come from distant places just to have one meal. There are large gatherings of people at all distribution points,” she added.

Providing a sense of dignity

Moreover, WFP also gives Rebuilding Alliance a modest amount to be distributed among the community chefs. “Most people refuse to take money, but we are insistent because we want them to feel a sense of dignity and acknowledgement,” said Adam.

Other expenses incurred during the campaign, on the other hand, are paid through crowdfunding.

Community chefs cook meals for displaced Gazans.
Community chefs cook meals for displaced Gazans.

However, transferring and receiving funds is never easy. Israel regulates all funds entering Gaza.

“But we are doing our due diligence adhering to the strict rules to ensure funds are reaching the correct people,” said the Rebuilding Alliance deputy director. Despite that, the final step of having paper notes in one’s hands depends on luck. After Oct 7, the bank’s branches across Gaza were shut down.

The only way locals can get money is at ATMs, which are mostly overcrowded. It is best if one leaves for the machine at 4am because the exercise usually lasts 12 to 15 hours.

“It is worse for women, and most of the time their salaries are just sitting in the bank accounts,” Adam told Dawn.com.

Never-ending challenges

One of the biggest problems that Rebuilding Alliance has faced post-Oct 7 is the skyrocketing prices of fruits, vegetables and other food items. As of now, a tomato costs $3 in Gaza, which amounts to approximately Rs835. An egg costs as much while the price of a potato stands at $11.

Even wood, which is the major source of energy used for cooking, is reaching the “price of gold”, said Adam. “It is sad, but some people are taking advantage of the situation,” he lamented.

Meanwhile, Heba said there was a shortage of commodities in the market which made it hard for kitchens to find vegetables and meat at affordable prices. “Many, many farms have been destroyed so the supplies are short.”

However, even in times of crisis, resilience breeds innovation.

Volunteers carry freshly cooked food for displaced families in Gaza.
Volunteers carry freshly cooked food for displaced families in Gaza.

“Chefs find innovative ways of cooking. They try to overcome the shortage of commodities in the market. For example, they use onion and garlic powder rather than fresh onions. The price of 1 kg onion is now $9 and before the war, it was less than $1,” Heba said.

It must also be noted that before Oct 7, nearly 800 aid trucks used to enter Gaza every day, which has now decreased by more than four times. Now, on a good day, 240 trucks manage to cross the border into Rafah, according to the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA).

Adam explained that Israel has been delaying the process of getting aid into Gaza.

For the Rebuilding Alliance, the WFP collaborates with the United Nations for food trucks entering Gaza. When aid is blocked, the organisation amps up its advocacy in the US and reaches out to senators and house representatives who in turn approach the Israeli embassy.

Coming together

In recent months, particularly after Oct 7, people from diverse backgrounds have approached the Rebuilding Alliance to become a part of the hot meals programme.

“We are seeing kitchens being run by doctors, teachers and artists,” Adam told Dawn.com.

Children stand in queues to collect freshly cooked food in Gaza.
Children stand in queues to collect freshly cooked food in Gaza.

Laila Kassab, a mother of five, is one such example. She used to find solace in her paintings but was forced to abandon her art completely during the Gaza crisis. Instead, she felt more compelled to volunteer for humanitarian work.

“I decided to start helping the displaced,” the artist said. “I felt that my children and I were very happy that we can lighten up the hearts of children.”

But Laila, Lama and several other chefs in Gaza need support to keep the smiles intact on the faces of their neighbours, friends and families.

“Given the immense need, we cannot feed everyone,” said Lama. “We do not have enough resources to provide hot meals to all families in my neighbourhood,” she added, calling on people across the globe to donate to her cause so that more and more displaced families could be fed.

Find details here if you want to donate to Rebuilding Alliance.

All photos provided by Rebuilding Alliance