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The UN agency for Palestine refugees is running out of supplies in Gaza

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

But first, an update on the situation in Gaza. The largest aid organization there is running out of supplies and fuel. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, also known as UNRWA, is housing some 690,000 displaced Palestinians in its shelters across the Gaza Strip. That is about four times the number they're intended to hold. The agency says its operations are crumbling due to lack of fuel, supplies and unreliable communications. Tamara Alrifai is a spokesperson for UNRWA, and she joins us now from Amman, Jordan. Welcome.

TAMARA ALRIFAI: Thank you, Juana.

SUMMERS: So can you just start, if you can, by giving us an overview of the current humanitarian situation on the ground in Gaza? What are you and your colleagues dealing with exactly?

ALRIFAI: I call my colleagues in Gaza every day, every morning - first, to check in on them and reassure myself that they're alive and, second, to get details about their living conditions and the living conditions of others. You said it. Almost 700,000 people are now living in around 150 schools. These are regular schools. I want us to visualize a school that is supposed to receive 2,000 people and think of 8,000 people overcrowded in a school with very low access to clean water or to food or to medicine - very, very few toilets for these huge numbers and very, very little access to food.

SUMMERS: When you speak to them, what are the things that are of greatest need to your colleagues, to the people that they're trying to help?

ALRIFAI: The most important thing for all my colleagues and what they hear from others is for the fighting to stop. My colleagues report that everyone around them is distressed, extremely tired. The children are traumatized. What they really need is clean drinking water, which is becoming very scarce, and food. And in order for us to be able to produce clean water, we need fuel for the water plants, and we are running out of fuel.

SUMMERS: Many of us, of course, have been following news of the aid that's been coming in with the trucks that are entering through the Rafah Crossing. Are - is that aid getting to the people who need it most?

ALRIFAI: We want to qualify and quantify. We've been getting, on average, 20 trucks per day. Before October 7, Gaza, which was already under blockade, was receiving around 500 trucks per day of commercial goods and humanitarian assistance. Prior to this conflict, unemployment and poverty rates were very, very high, and around 70% of Gazans relied on food aid. So you can imagine their situation now, as displaced people and with this conflict, without any employment, any jobs and any income or access to goods. So 20 trucks per day is really very little in the face of the acute needs.

SUMMERS: You mentioned earlier that you start each day calling your colleagues there in Gaza to assure that they're still alive, to check in on them. And we mentioned that communications are unreliable. How is that impacting the agency's ability to operate?

ALRIFAI: It really affects our ability to plan the distribution of food or to plan anything, really, if we cannot communicate to start with, to get information about the security situation and whether it is safe for our trucks and my colleagues to go around. But I want to really highlight the impact on people's mental well-being to be completely cut off from the rest of the world and from their own families inside Gaza because we no longer have telecoms, but also, we no longer have electricity to charge phones. It is really traumatic for people in Gaza to wake up to a total blackout.

SUMMERS: At the time of this interview, we know that 70 of your colleagues were killed in Gaza since October 7. And first of all, I am incredibly sorry. Can you tell us, how has that loss affected UNRWA's work? And how are you and the folks you're working with - how are you holding up?

ALRIFAI: Oh, Juana, for today, it's 72. So every single day, we get news about more UNRWA colleagues killed. Most of my colleagues in Gaza are from Gaza themselves. So UNRWA's the largest U.N. agency on the Gaza Strip, and it employs 13,000 people. They are teachers, engineers, doctors, social workers. They're really part of the Gaza society. So when we hear about 20, 40, 60 people killed in one apartment block, chances are that one of my colleagues lives there. So it is very, very dramatic for all of us at UNRWA to wake up every day and wonder whether the numbers are climbing. And every day they climb, these numbers.

SUMMERS: Tamara Alrifai is a spokesperson for UNRWA. Thank you so much.

ALRIFAI: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Tinbete Ermyas
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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