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World Central Kitchen victims recalled going out of their way to provide assistance

Shortly after learning of his friend’s death, Josh Phelps saw the gruesome images of an Israeli attack that killed her and six other people delivering aid to World Central Kitchen in the Gaza Strip.

“It was shocking,” said Phelps, a former WCK colleague of Australian aid worker Lalzawmi Frankcom.

He had been texting Frankcom – known as Zomi – just the day before when photos of it emerged Couple A message popped up on his phone that he was delivering food to an Indian reservation in Pine Ridge, SD.

He sent it to her and she responded with heart. Hours later she was dead.

Frankcom, 43, was among seven WCK employees killed in an Israeli strike in Gaza on Monday, according to the nonprofit organization. It has urged WCK and at least one other group to pause aid operations as famine looms over the besieged Gaza Strip and pressure mounts on Israel over the rising Palestinian civilian death toll.

The attack on the organization founded by celebrity chef José Andrés drew international criticism and calls for a thorough investigation by Israel.

Frankcom, an Australian citizen who WCK said was acting as an assistant manager, was one of seven victims of the strike. The organization later released the names of three deceased WCK relief team members: Saifeddin Issam Ayad Abutaha, a 25-year-old Palestinian; Damian Soból, a 35-year-old from Poland; and Jacob Flickinger, a 33-year-old dual U.S.-Canadian citizen.

Three British members of an accompanying security team were also killed: John Chapman, 57; James Henderson, 33; and James Kirby, 47.

WCK said the team traveled around the Palestinian enclave in vehicles that included two armored cars bearing the World Central Kitchen logo. The aid group said it coordinated its movement with the Israeli military.

The video shows the vehicle that was hit by an airstrike in Deir al-Balah, Gaza, on April 1, killing seven World Central Kitchen employees. (Video: AbdulHakim Abu Riash via Storyful)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israeli forces “inadvertently hit innocent people” and that Israel would fully investigate the “tragic incident.”

Phelps, who left WCK in 2021, remembered Frankcom as a person who could make lifelong friends in the worst of situations. “You knew when Zomi was in the room,” he said. “She loved to laugh, loved to have a good time.”

The two met in 2018 after a volcanic eruption in Guatemala when Frankcom was traveling in Central America taking online courses after his job at an Australian bank. She began helping WCK provide food assistance. Her work has taken her all over the world, including Paradise, California; Egypt; and Türkiye. “She just built a bond with every community she worked in,” Phelps said.

The last joint mission was in Haiti in 2021. “She rode around on motorcycles delivering groceries,” Phelps remembers. “Her sense of responsibility to the people we serve and her willingness to go the extra mile were very special – as was her great attitude.”

This attitude led them to Gaza. When Phelps asked via WhatsApp how she was doing, she wrote back: “I’m getting used to the drones but the booms still make my stomach feel weird.”

Her death devastated people she met around the world, Phelps said. “She had a zest for life and a heart for service,” he added. “People will remember her.”

Australian officials condemned the attack and said they had contacted Israeli authorities and called for an investigation. “We expect full responsibility for these deaths,” the Australian Foreign Ministry said.

Yousef Sharef said Abutaha was a cousin of the WCK team in Gaza, whose death was a “great loss” for the family and a shock. “He was a friendly, kind person and always did good things and supported people who needed help,” Sharef said.

Great Britain has summoned the Israeli ambassador because of the incident, the Foreign Office said in a statement. Separately, Foreign Secretary David Cameron told Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz that the deaths of “aid workers in Gaza, including three British nationals, were completely unacceptable.” Cameron said Israel must explain how the attack occurred and “make major changes to ensure the safety of aid workers on the ground.”

Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly said she was “horrified” to learn of the attack, which she said killed a Canadian citizen. Joly said Canada demands “full responsibility for these murders.” U.S. Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew said he was “deeply saddened by the devastating loss of a U.S. citizen” in the killings.

“We have spoken directly to the Israeli government about this particular incident. We have called for a rapid, thorough and impartial investigation,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Paris.

The Polish Foreign Ministry expressed its “deepest condolences” to the family of the volunteer who provided assistance to the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip. The Ministry said it spoke out against “disregard for international humanitarian law”.

The mayor of the Polish town of Przemysl identified the victim as Soból, whom he described as a volunteer.

“There are no words to describe the feelings of the people who knew this amazing young man now.” wrote Mayor Wojciech Bakun.

Videos published by World Central Kitchen show Polish aid worker Damian Soból, who was killed in a strike on April 1, working in Gaza and Cairo. (Video: World Central Kitchen)

Aparna Branz, a former WCK volunteer, said she met Soból while volunteering in Poland and Ukraine in 2022. She described him as “always smiling, friendly, patient and always ready to help anyone.”

“He was one of the bright spots during these terrible months,” said Branz. She also remembered him as a devoted son who often spoke on the phone with his mother.

After the earthquake in Morocco last year, the two met again at work. Branz recalled that Soból was busy preparing to leave for Rafah then, but still: “He was typical Damian, helping me navigate the logistics of transportation, where to go and where to stay.”

While working together in the early days of the war in Ukraine, “we didn’t talk about the reason we were there,” she said. “We just wanted to help.”

Frances Vinall, Heba Farouk Mahfouz and Cate Brown contributed to this report.

correction

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Damian Soból was 25 years old. He was 35. This also included an incorrect age for Saifeddin Issam Ayad. He was 25, not 26. The article also misspelled Jacob Flickinger’s last name. The article has been corrected.

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