On this week’s edition of The Joy Beat, we’re celebrating those who go above and beyond.

Peter and Norah Zoummar have their hands full operating and owning a restaurant in Ashland: 33 All American Diner. That plus a young daughter should be enough for anyone, but they didn’t stop there.

Inspired by Norah’s upbringing in Uganda, the couple also dedicates their free time to running the Neshlyn Children’s Foundation. Their nonprofit raises money for children in Namwendwa, the village where Norah grew up.

The foundation helps provide essential aid like nutrition, education, shelter and health care to help break the cycle of poverty. And if that weren’t enough, all of their restaurant tips from Tuesday through Friday go directly to the foundation.

Peter and Norah Zoummar joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss the story behind their philanthropy and the joy they find in their work. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

Arun Rath: The first thing I wanted to ask about, Norah: you just received an honor?

Norah Zoummar: Yes, I did. I’m still dreaming. I can’t believe it, because I’m just a girl from Namwendwa — out of poverty, I myself am an orphan. And never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would be honored for anything, because I do this from my heart. I don’t require anyone to honor me, but it was just a shock. It was such a nice thing.

Rath: Tell us what the award is.

Norah Zoummar: I was nominated through the Black Excellence on the Hill. I was nominated by Rep. [Jack Patrick] Lewis, which is still a shock. I’m still sleeping. I think maybe one day I’ll wake up, but it’s such an honor.

Rath: You said it takes your mind right back to your home village.

Norah Zoummar: Yes. For me, this honor is not for me; it’s for my people in the village. I love the children. I want to give all the little children and orphans out there in my village hope that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what you look like. You can still do great things in the world.

“I want to give all the little children and orphans out there in my village hope that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what you look like. You can still do great things in the world.”
Norah Zoummar

Rath: Tell us a bit more about your upbringing.

Norah Zoummar: My parents passed away from HIV and AIDS. I was born in 1986, so there was an HIV and AIDS pandemic. When my mother had me, she lost a lot of blood, and she was given blood that was infected because, in those days, people didn’t really check. The doctors didn’t have much knowledge about how it spread.

My mother was given the wrong blood, unfortunately, so she passed away when I was two-and-a-half. My grandmother took on the role of raising me and took care of me. My aunt, my mom’s sister, took over the education part, so I was educated. I have a degree in mass communication, and that’s how my life has been — just aiming to do better.

Rath: Peter, the two of you built this really beautiful life here. At what point did you decide to start getting involved in philanthropy?

Peter Zoummar: It was around the time when the COVID pandemic took effect here in the states. We would send money back home to Uganda to help with the education of the youngsters back in the village of Namwendwa.

Norah just recently said, “I’m just going to take the tips that I make during the week and send those over” — to help with the process of taking kids to school, educating them and giving them hope.

Rath: Trying to provide education to kids in Uganda sounds pretty wonderful.

Peter Zoummar: Yeah. Education as a whole in Uganda, to go to school, it’s $20 a year to send someone to school. So you can imagine, every little bit will help.

Eventually, our goal is to build a school to offer a larger group of children the ability and accessibility to go to school.

Rath: You must be so busy with the restaurant, the foundation, and also raising a child.

Peter Zoummar: Oh, yeah.

Rath: This question is to you both: how do you manage it?

Norah Zoummar: During the week, I’m the waitress, and Peter is the cook. On the weekends, we have a little help, so I join him in the kitchen to help him cook. And then, we have our hands full when we get home with our[ daughter] Alba. She finishes school at about 2 or 3 o’clock, so we have enough time to go pick her up, take her to activities, do homework and make calls back [to Uganda].

During the day, I make so many calls back to Uganda to see: What needs to be done? What more money do you need? I tell them how much I made in tips, and then I put it in the children’s bank account, because we have a bank account for the foundation.

It’s a lot — I don’t know how I do it, really, but somehow I manage.

“We’re trying to do the best we can. It doesn’t make sense for someone to live comfortably when, where you come from, they’re so poor.”
Norah Zoummar

Rath: I’m trying to think of how to say this. I’m someone who is a child of immigrants who came here with nothing and built a life for me and my brother, while also helping family back at home. There’s a kind of reverence that we have for people like you — that generation that are doing that. I don’t know, even though it’s not where I’m from, I just want to say thank you.

Norah Zoummar: Aww. For me, it’s the sadness I get every time we go home to Uganda. I just feel so sad because most of these children have no hope. I kind of call them the “forgotten children of Namwendwa” because it’s like, no one cares!

Every time we go home to the village, the little kids all run towards us like we’re coming to save them. They feel like we’re coming to save them.

We, ourselves, we don’t have a lot. They’ll run around my husband, because for them, every time they see somebody that’s white, they assume they’ve come to give them money or clothes. We can only do so much with the little tips that I have and send home. But it would be nice to send more, too.

At the moment, we’re only sending about 20 children to school, with the school fees and all the necessities they need — books, pencils, pens. We even buy clothes, because a lot of them come to school without shoes. They don’t have clothes.

We’re trying to do the best we can. It doesn’t make sense for someone to live comfortably when, where you come from, they’re so poor. They live below the poverty line. If there’s a line of poverty, Namwendwa is like, a thousand times worse than that.

Rath: This segment is called The Joy Beat. I’m wondering, personally, what brings you the most joy?

Norah: What brings me the most joy is seeing the faces of the children in my village smile. I love giving, I love people, I love children. I only have one child, but when I go to the village, I feel like all those little children running around are all my children. If I could adopt all the children in my village, I would do it in a heartbeat.

Even during my birthday — I always have a celebration, and a lot of people at the restaurant were giving me money, [saying] “Oh, happy birthday, Norah! Happy birthday!” I said, “I’m not really going to be happy with taking this money and going to the store and buying myself new shoes or a new handbag or anything like that.”

I decided to celebrate with the children of Namwendwa, so I threw a big party for them. I was so happy to see how they celebrated and how they were drinking the sodas, and it just brought a lot of happiness and joy. I was like, “Oh my God, I don’t need anything. I don’t need anything else.”