José Andrés Eulogizes 7 World Central Kitchen Workers Killed in Gaza

A stone pulpit in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., is no place the chef José Andrés expected to be when he created the food charity World Central Kitchen nearly 15 years ago. But on Thursday he stood there, eulogizing seven of the organization’s workers who were killed in the Gaza Strip while trying to carry out a singular mission: bringing food into a region of 2.2 million people facing a growing humanitarian crisis.

“They risked everything to feed people they did not know and will never meet,” Mr. Andrés said. “They were the best of humanity.”

The seven workers were killed on April 1 after they helped unload a barge of food aid in northern Gaza and were heading to the southern city Rafah. Their well-marked convoy of vehicles was hit by armed Israeli drones. Israeli military officials said the attack was a serious mistake that shouldn’t have happened. They cited a series of failures, including a breakdown in communication and violations of the military’s own rules of engagement.

An unusually subdued and occasionally tearful Mr. Andrés said he was consumed with regret, sorrow and anger over the deaths. “I know there are also many questions about why World Central Kitchen was in Gaza,” he said. “We ask ourselves the same questions day and night.”

But the workers took the risk, he said, because they believed that showing up and feeding people in their darkest hours would let them know they weren’t alone.

“Food is a universal human right,” Mr. Andrés said. “Feeding each other, cooking and eating together is what makes us human. The dishes we cook and deliver are not just ingredients, or calories. A plate of food is a plate of hope. “

Attendance at the service, which included prayers and readings by Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders, and a musical interlude by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, was by invitation — although the service was streamed live on World Central Kitchen’s website. The organization and Mr. Andrés restaurant group are based in Washington.

Funerals for the victims have already been held, but this was the only memorial observed in the United States. Among the 560 people attending were Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris; representatives from three of the victims’ families; and a few dozen World Central Kitchen volunteers and contractors who had worked together in disasters and conflicts across the globe. They filled only a small part of the cathedral, which has been the site of four presidential state funerals and memorials for victims of the 9/11 attacks.

While the World Central Kitchen deaths sparked global outrage, more than 220 other aid workers have also been killed in Gaza.

But the seven were the first casualties the organization has endured since Mr. Andrés dreamed up the group while doing culinary relief work in Haiti after a 2010 earthquake.

His concept was simple: Chefs living in the areas hit by disaster could feed suffering people more quickly and often with more delicious and comforting food than traditional relief organizations.

Mr. Andrés leveraged his connections, charisma and the clever use of social media to amass an army of culinary volunteers and build World Central Kitchen into a $550 million worldwide enterprise.

Last week, hundreds of mourners, including Mr. Andrés and a representative from the office of the Polish president, attended a Roman Catholic Mass in Przemysl, Poland, the hometown of the slain worker Damian Sobol.

Mr. Sobol, 35, an exuberant former hospitality student who was engaged to be married, began helping World Central Kitchen feed Ukrainian war refugees pouring into a Polish train station in early 2022. He became a logistical wizard for the organization as it set up operations in other places, including Gaza.

Mr. Andrés also attended a service last week in St.-Georges, Quebec, for Jacob Flickinger, 33, an avid outdoorsman and former member of the Canadian Armed Forces. Mr. Flickinger began working for the organization in October, helping feed residents after a hurricane near Acapulco, Mexico. Then he headed to Gaza.

“We discussed the risk,” his father, John Flickinger, said in an interview with The Associated Press shortly after his son was killed. “He said basically, “Dad, people are starving there and I think I can help. And I appreciated that.”

On Thursday, Mr. Andrés broke into tears as he eulogized Lalzawmi Frankcom, 43, an Australian whom everyone called Zomi. She was like a sister to him, he said — tough and funny, and the most senior member of the team in Gaza.

She first volunteered in 2018 when a volcano erupted in Guatemala, and went on to help victims of floods in Bangladesh, earthquakes in Morocco, poverty in Venezuela and wildfires in California. She had recently been named senior manager for World Central Kitchen’s Asia operations and was based in Bangkok.

Saifeddin Abutaha, a 25-year-old Palestinian on the relief team, had been translating and driving for the organization since the beginning of the year. He had returned from the United Arab Emirates to help with his family’s flour mill. He had contacts in Israel, which helped the organization coordinate permissions.

The remaining three workers — John Chapman, 57, James Kirby, 47, and Jim Henderson, 33 — were part of a British-based security firm called Solace Global. They had been hired as part of the organization’s security team. All three had served in various arms of the British military.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in October 2022, World Central Kitchen waded into a war for the first time. When Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, the group quickly set up relief kitchens in Israel, and then expanded its mission to help Palestinians in Gaza, where hundreds of thousands are on the brink of famine.

The seven workers had spent a long day helping unload a barge with more than 100 tons of food that World Central Kitchen and Open Arms, a Spanish nonprofit, had shipped to the Gaza coast from Cyprus, and were headed to Rafah to sleep. At just past 10 p.m. Gaza time, the first of three cars carrying the workers was hit by armed drones. The cars — white and with prominent World Central Kitchen logos — had been cleared by Israel for passage.

Within minutes, the drones hit the second and then the third car.

“I know we all have many unanswered questions about what happened and why,” Mr. Andrés said in his eulogy. “We still demand an independent investigation into the actions of the IDF against our team.”

World Central Kitchen immediately paused work in Gaza after the bombing. The organization is expected to announce its next steps there soon, said Linda Roth, its communications officer.

Mr. Andrés indicated he is not likely to walk away. He read a message from Mr. Abutaha’s brother, who wrote, “I hope that World Central Kitchen continues its humanitarian work around the world, carrying on the spirit of the fallen and the resilience of the Palestinian people.”

Zach Montague contributed reporting.

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