Futaba Kaiharazuka, an assistant program director with the aid organization CARE International Japan, remembers clearly the first time she visited a refugee camp in Pakistan.
She was 28 years old, working for the nongovernmental group JEN on her first overseas field assignment. Immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Kaiharazuka was sent to assess the changing needs of a long-established camp for Afghanistan refugees.
“Before I went, I had images of a refugee camp, basically like what you would get from watching TV or reading articles. I had no real idea,” she recalled. “First, it did not look like a camp at all, but like a village. In Pakistan, there are many long-term refugees who fled Afghanistan in the early 1980s when the former Soviet Union invaded. Some of the refugees had been there over 20 years, and then there were the newcomers, fleeing the Taliban in the wake of 9/11.”
Kaiharazuka also clearly remembers the individuals: “I think it really formed the basis of my idea of humanitarian assistance. It is not just giving or providing certain items. What we do is offer support, an investment into the people, because we know they can do it themselves. A lot of people hear the word ‘refugee,’ and they think it must be all devastation or too sad, but that is not entirely true. People have created a life, they have grocery shops and cattle and sheep; children are running around, just a normal life. I really felt the great energy, the power of people.”
She has been attracted to this power from a young age. She was only in her early teens when South Africa ended apartheid, and she vividly remembers images of Nelson Mandela in the news. Ethiopia gained worldwide attention with a horrible drought, and international pop stars were uniting to raise aid money.
All these events shaped the young Kaiharazuka’s outlook. “I realized, if you could just peel off your skin, everyone all over the world is the same. We all have the same muscles, the same bones, two eyes, one mouth. I started looking at the problems all over the world, and wondering what I could do to help.”
Growing up in the rural mountain town of Kofu, Tottori Prefecture, Kaiharazuka said she always looked to the valleys and the world beyond.
“I always wanted to know about somewhere else, wanted to do something else. I applied for an exchange program from high school with our sister school in Illinois, but my friends all said: ‘Why do you want to go to America? You can’t even speak English.”
Kaiharazuka spent only one month in Byron, near Rockford, Illinois, but her journey to different worlds had just begun.
After graduating from high school, she decided to earn a degree first in Japan, and sought out an international relations program at Chubu University in Aichi Prefecture. It was 1992, and according to Kaiharazuka, “there were not that many international studies programs out there, and no humanitarian aid-connected programs.”
After graduating in 1986, she turned her thoughts toward studying in the U.S., where she felt she could more easily find work in humanitarian fields. She applied for a scholarship at Ohio University, with which Chubu University had a strong connection at the time.
Kaiharazuka was not accepted, but with this rejection she became more determined. She studied for the TOEFL on her own and worked part time at a cram school to save money. After two years, she applied successfully to Ohio University’s master’s program in international development studies.
Studying in the United States made Kaiharazuka more aware of the realities facing humanitarian aid work. After returning to Japan, she encountered more challenges. “In Japan, most NGOs expect you to have some experience, so even though I applied to dozens of organizations for over a year, I never even got called for an interview. I became very frustrated.”
When the chance finally came for her first interview with JEN, or Japan Emergency NGOs, Kaiharazuka decided to take a risk. “After the basic interview, JEN asked me if I had anything else to add or any questions. I replied, ‘Lots of NGOs are looking for someone with experience, and I am not experienced, but I know I can do this. Without working with me, you cannot judge me, so please just think of me as one of your staff.’ Even as I was speaking, I thought, this is not going to work, but surprisingly it did, and I got the job.”
She was hired by JEN, which was founded in 1994 with the intention of bringing together different aid groups in Japan. She was a field agent for three years, traveling to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Eritrea in northeastern Africa.
After leaving JEN, she worked briefly for Hitachi Ltd. in a section related to the firm’s social activities, but decided to return to humanitarian aid work. She worked with the Japanese Red Cross, which sent her to Aceh in Indonesia for seven months, and then she landed her current job with CARE International in 2007.
Originally founded in 1945 by American aid organizations working together to provide relief packages to World War II survivors, CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere) today fights poverty in war-torn and developing countries. Kaiharazuka joined its Japan branch as assistant field director, and instantly began work back inside countries devastated by natural disasters or war: Afghanistan, Indonesia, Myanmar, southern Sudan and Lesotho. She never expected to add Japan to that list.
“Now with the disaster in Tohoku, it is just beyond the capacity of any government or even our own imagination. CARE International does not usually provide operations in developed countries like Japan or America, since those governments have their own systems and can depend on bilateral assistance as well,” she said. “But with Tohoku, immediately after March 11, we started discussing if we should break precedent and go there.”
It didn’t take long for Kaiharazuka and her colleagues to decide. “Our colleague CARE members in other countries, like Germany, U.S. and Canada, also wanted to do something and quickly began raising funds. We sent out our first assessment group on March 17, also bringing relief items.”
Kaiharazuka, part of that original team, now admits that may have not been the best idea. “It was not the right time to complete a proper assessment; things were still too chaotic.” The group waited another week, and then Kaiharazuka and colleagues from Canada and the U.S. returned to Iwate Prefecture. They stayed a month, and their assessment led to the establishment of an ongoing meal service in the tsunami-ravaged town of Yamada, serving food at several evacuation centers.
“They already had many relief items in Yamada (when her team returned to the town), and it was becoming difficult to organize,” she said. “A spokesman from the town office suggested a hot meals service, since townspeople had mostly been surviving on rice balls or instant noodles. People from the coast missed their fish and vegetables.”
With the twice a day meal service, she and her colleagues put the first phase of their work into operation, but Kaiharazuka now talks more about the future: “Filling someone’s stomach does mean a lot. At first the townspeople were a bit skeptical of us because we were strangers to them, but once we started the meals program, we could start a good relationship.
“Our plan is at least a three-year commitment, from emergency to recovery. CARE International programs focuses on three main areas: feeding programs, psychological and social programs, and community relief programs. Most people now are concerned with resuming everyday life, how they will survive, what job they can do. The feeding program may last six months, but we must also tackle livelihood issues for the long term,” she said.
Although Kaiharazuka and her colleagues were accepted in Yamada, their efforts to expand to other devastated towns are still ongoing. “We have approached Otsuchi (in Iwate Prefecture) many times, but things are still chaotic there. I went up on the hill, where they have set up their temporary town office, and you can look down over the former town — all you can see is debris.”
Although there are many challenges to face, working for the first time within a developed country with all the systems in place and local governments with which to coordinate, Kaiharazuka is confident Tohoku will rebuild. “The Tohoku people are so generous; in Yamada, where most of their immediate needs for food have been taken care of, people are hesitant to ask for more. Most people say, ‘I still have half of my house. Please ask my neighbor, she lost everything.’ “
For now, Kaiharazuka is back in Tokyo after spending the better part of two months in Iwate. After traveling all over the world in the most difficult situations, it is bittersweet for her to realize that one of the countries requiring long-term humanitarian help is her own. “We are still very active in southern Sudan and Afghanistan, but we are also committed now to our work in Japan.”
For more information, visit the CARE International website at careinternational.org.