UN World Food Programme

Nehaia Abu-Nahla: Life as head of WFP's Gaza sub-office

Fear and violence are an every day reality for Nehaia Abu-Nahla, Head of the WFP Gaza sub-office. She spoke to WFP's Heather Hill about what it's like to work in a place where she can never feel safe, and where an attack may be just around the corner.

Fear and violence are an every day reality for Nehaia Abu-Nahla, Head of the WFP Gaza sub-office.
She spoke to WFP's Heather Hill about what it's like to work in a place where she can never feel safe, and where an attack may be just around the corner.

It’s only a ten-minute car ride from Nehaia Abu-Nahla's home in Gaza City to the WFP office, but any trip through Gaza's

Gaza has a "Phase Four" security rating -- the highest danger level before the evacuation of UN staff is invoked

perilous streets is fraught with danger.

On her way to work, Nehaia often encounters violent clashes between rival families or political factions and Israeli air attacks on buildings or cars.

Sometimes Israeli tanks enter Gaza for several days at a time putting whole sections of the city under curfew as they root out militants accused of planning attacks on Israel.

Ceaseless violence

The cycle of violence is ceaseless and there is never a moment to relax.

Gaza has a "Phase Four" security rating -- the highest danger level before the evacuation of UN staff is invoked.

Despite the danger, Nehaia and the WFP Gaza team ensure food reaches some 260,000 people in the most bitterly contested territory in the world, the Gaza Strip.

After 12 years of service, Nehaia is one of the longest serving members of the WFP team in the occupied Palestinian territory’s (oPt) long-running emergency operation.

Troubled history

For the past two years she has been head of the WFP Gaza sub-office, witnessing what is reported as the worst period in Gaza's troubled history.

It is not always easy to keep WFP operations running against a backdrop of deteriorating security conditions, however Nehaia has managed.

For the last seven years, since the second Intifada began, the conflict in Gaza has escalated. All hopes for peace or development on this tiny strip of land have crumbled as the political situation has taken one blow after another.

In 2002, WFP launched its first emergency operation for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank who lost their jobs in Israel when the borders were virtually closed.

Stress

Delivering food to the most affected population during armed incursions can be extremely stressful.

One of the most disturbing moments for Nehaia came in November 2006 when she was in a convoy of humanitarian agencies travelling to a food distribution point in Beit Hanoun.

This is my home and I have invested my whole life here

Nehaia Abu-Nahla

"We woke at 5am after a restless night. My children, who are 7 and 9, were upset and wanted me to stay with them as they had suffered a difficult night because of the drones overhead.

"It broke my heart to leave them but I had to set out to work early as we had an important task ahead of us," she says.

By 5:30am Nehaia was at the warehouse to meet her colleagues who had the trucks loaded ready. They had a quick meeting in the faint morning light to ensure everyone knew their tasks before setting out to join the UN convoy to Beit Hanoun.

"Oppressive sadness"

The drive from the WFP warehouse in Gaza City to Beit Hanoun took around 20 minutes. The roads weren’t busy but were filled with an oppressive sadness, says Nehaia. As they passed the first Israeli tank into Beit Hanoun, Nehaia felt the air thicken.

"The streets were filled with women, children and several men – all of whom had been released from the curfew for a few hours. They were extremely tense but pleased to see us and met us with quick, anxious smiles," says Nehaia.

“We drove out to a location we had identified as particularly needy, having not received assistance for a few days. It was difficult to access this area as the roads had been severely damaged by the heavy tanks.

Crying

"We finally arrived and set ourselves up for distribution. People quickly gathered around us shouting and crying, imploring us to help them: 'I need food for my children,' one woman cried."

"We have no baby milk," said another. "The electricity and water is cut," cried yet another. It broke my heart to see the people this way- and for a moment I remembered my own children sleeping at home – then quickly I refocused on the task ahead,” she says.

“I was working with a group of women to try to control the situation but it soon became pointless as everyone was so desperate for help that they could no longer hear what we were telling them. People were pushing and scrambling for assistance,” says Nehaia.

Community leaders

Nehaia says that in such a situation WFP relies heavily on local community leaders to help distribute commodities and control the crowds.

However in this case it was very difficult to communicate with them as the telephone lines had been cut.

Nehaia herself comes under considerable pressure as a manager as she is the only female head of office of a UN agency in Gaza; however, as she is respected for her fairness and the hard-work of her team she faces no challenges to work alongside even the most conservative counterparts.

Gunships

Sometimes, when the helicopter gunships are overhead or the streets erupt in armed clashes, Nehaia dreams of a normal life for her two children and artist husband in a safer country.

However, unlike some of her colleagues, friends and relatives who have gone overseas, Nehaia stays.

"This is my home and I have invested my whole life here,” she says. “The main concern of most families here is to get food.

"Today, more than 75 percent of the people in Gaza are on food assistance. Through my work I can make a difference to those around me and give people hope,” says Nehaia.