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Hot meals for Libya's poor and displaced

Libya, April 18, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    In Sami Shakmak's restaurant, a volunteer cook makes part of a meal for thousands of people affected by Libya's ongoing crisis. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A Libyan boy scout packages meals for displaced and poor people at Sami Shakmak's restaurant. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Young volunteers put the meals in bags, ready to go to families who need hot meals in the midst of the ongoing crisis. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

Just seven months ago, Sami Shakmak had big plans to open a nice restaurant in Benghazi and start a prosperous business. He bought a building and spent months renovating it and adding in special details to make the perfect ambiance for Libyan families to come and enjoy an evening out in Benghazi.

He installed a fountain, created a waterfall, built a large outdoor gazebo and had the entire interior remodeled. He even put in a special pizza oven to be sure his pizzas had the best crust in town.

Then, just weeks before his grand opening, the Libyan uprising began. Sami and his friends were at the protests from the beginning, supporting the popular uprising and call for democracy. But as the days passed and fighting began to take its toll on many towns, he felt he needed to do more than just protest.

“I knew that this was the time that I needed to do something for my country,” explained Sami. “I couldn’t sit and do nothing while others were suffering around me.”

He and his good friend Aiman Gidir, a successful business man, decided to join forces to help feed people who needed help: people who had been displaced from their homes by the fighting, doctors and medical staff who were working around the clock and not able to go out to get food, poor people who could no longer buy food because their social security checks had not been issued since the uprising started, and many others in need.

“I have the resources to take my family away from here and wait in some safe place until the fighting ends,” said Aiman. “But if everyone leaves now there will be no one to help. I will work to help free Libya so we can live with dignity and become a democratic country.”

What started as a small idea to help a few people in need has quickly grown into a massive undertaking and critical service for thousands of people who are depending on Sami and Aiman’s generosity to have a hot meal.

“In the beginning we were serving about 4,000 meals a day, which seemed like a lot at the time,” said Sami. “Today, the number has grown to 10,000 meals per day. I have no idea how we are doing it, but we take it day by day and somehow we manage.”

Sami and Aiman have a lot of help to make this all possible. More than 50 volunteers show up daily at 8:00 A.M. and work until evening, doing whatever is needed to get the meals cooked and organized. Boy Scouts, students, lawyers, engineers and taxi cab drivers all volunteer and work side-by-side to ensure their important work is done.

“We also receive a lot of donations from the community to buy the food,” said Aiman. “Today someone came by and gave us two cows, others give us money, or rice, or whatever they can to help.”

Despite the fact that Sami hasn’t made a penny from thousands of meals his restaurant has served so far, it is a huge success.

“I just hope this ends soon. We have put our lives and this business on hold,” says Sami. “But we will keep it going until all the people who have been displaced by the fighting can go back home."