The line for Bawadi Mediterranean Grill went out the door and around the building on a crisp Monday night in the suburbs of Washington D.C. Inside the Palestinian restaurant, servers dodged a mass of diners to replenish hummus, baba ganoush and chicken shawarma on the buffet table.
As the conflict between Israel and Hamas rages on, diaspora communities around the world watch in anguish. That includes the owner of Bawadi Mediterranean Grill, Khalid Mekki, whose niece was recently killed by an Israeli airstrike in Gaza.
The Monday crowd at Bawadi had gathered for a fundraiser – with Mekki donating 50 percent of the night’s profits to the United Nations’ relief agency.
Mekki came to the U.S. 26 years ago and has a PhD in industrial engineering. But he opened Bawadi Mediterranean Grill in 2014 to celebrate his culture.
“We created this little Palestine restaurant,” Mekki told Morning Edition. “I have many customers, they come and say, ‘I don’t have to go back, I can come to Bawadi.'”
But lately, Mekki’s mind has been back in his birthplace, Gaza. Over the past month, he’s struggled for updates from his six sisters and two brothers there. And when he does get news, it’s often bad, he says.
Recently his niece was killed, alongside her husband and three of their daughters, in an Israeli airstrike. Israel continues to use airstrikes to try to root out Hamas militants following that group’s October 7 attacks. And the military says the civilian deaths are a consequence of Hamas militants embedding themselves among the civilian population.
But there’s growing alarm in the international community about the high civilian death toll in Gaza. More than 11,000 people have been killed in the Palestinian enclave, thousands of them children.
The civilian death toll includes Mekki’s niece, who he described as a “beautiful, beautiful girl.” She didn’t have any affiliation with militants, nor did her three daughters or husband. So Mekki asks why they were killed.
“My whole family’s in Gaza, and if I lose them, I’ll be without a family,” Mekki said. “That’s why I’m very adamant that we need a cease fire.”
Mekki’s cause appears to have support. Many of the diners Monday evening were there for the first time, like Sara Klein, who saw a post about the fundraiser on social media. Klein said she wasn’t able to attend the pro-Palestine march in Washington D.C. earlier this month, and felt this was another way to show support for people in Gaza.
“I consider myself to be a foodie, so this seemed like a perfect combination to me,” Klein said. “I want to show support for people that are losing homes, losing families out of this conflict.”
It was also 25-year-old Alia Haleem’s first time at Bawadi. She came with her father, whose mother was a Palestinian refugee who was forced from her home during the creation of Israel in 1948.
She’s impressed that Mekki continues to push through, despite experiencing so much loss.
“If he can wake up and come to his restaurant and know that there’s a full house waiting for him of people who support him, then we’re happy to be those people,” Haleem said.
Mekki said business has picked up in the past month, and that he feels like his neighbors are behind him.
“Our support is from everyone,” Mekki said. “People of different backgrounds, different religions, Jews, Christians, Muslims.”