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Refugees International Japan President Jane Best

by Judit Kawaguchi

Jane Best is the president of Refugees International Japan, an independent, nonprofit organization based in Tokyo. Since its foundation 32 years ago, RIJ’s dedicated volunteers and staff have been raising funds in Japan and working on projects to help support refugees around the world. Before joining RIJ 11 years ago, Jane was quite a nomad: She worked in Zambia with the UK Voluntary Service Overseas, was restaurant manager in a British department store and ran a British restaurant in Tokyo. Now settled in the mountains of Tokyo and feeling very much at ease, Jane continues to work relentlessly to assist refugees in reaching their objective: a way home.

Every conflict, wherever in the world, matters to all of us. Some people may wonder why we should care about a conflict on the other side of the world. Besides the obvious humanitarian aspect, conflicts matter because they destabilize the world economy. Natural disasters can do the same.

Earthquakes shake people in many ways. After the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake on March 11, we saw a huge increase in volunteerism in Japan. At first, many parts of the Tohoku region had more volunteers than they could accept.

When one is not very good with routine, it’s best to move around. I’m better with challenges, with things that test me. That’s why when I graduated college in Britain, I joined the Voluntary Service Overseas and taught hotel management and catering in a college in Zambia. I loved every minute of it!

The challenge is always to get an income. Since, in order to maintain our independence, we don’t accept any government funding, collecting funds is hard work. We need more contributions and more volunteer fundraisers.

Natural disasters and conflicts have a lot in common. Our mandate is to support people who have been displaced by wars or by conflicts. However, our funding policy can be applied to helping Tohoku following the earthquake and tsunami. Here in Japan, the people who are moving into temporary housing have faced trauma, displacement and now feel a lack of hope. Their issues are basically the same as people who escape from conflicts. That’s why we’d like to support projects in the Tohoku region that are similar to those we normally fund abroad.

When I look back, I see everything as a great experience. I don’t regret anything. All changes are good.

Conflicts in one part of the world affect everyone elsewhere, too. When one region is in turmoil, trade routes and supply chains are affected across such a wide area that it becomes clear how we are all connected. To solve any conflict is in everyone’s best interests.

Boredom is always a huge problem. There is one Japanese town that used to have 4,000 inhabitants before the quake, and today 700 of them live in temporary housing. What are they going to do? Some lost their livelihoods, others lost their children and spouses, and many lost everything. We can support them by providing them with the means to do some sort of therapy, whether drama, music or sports.

The strongest community comes from hard work. I went to the Tohoku region 10 weeks after the earthquake and tsunami. The roads were fixed already! We never see that in other countries that we visit, partly because of the continuing conflicts. Here in Japan, the speed and the efficiency of recovery are incredible.

Lack of self-respect inhibits productivity. We sponsor projects with a maximum budget of $25,000 a year and a limit of up to four years. During that period, we hope that the refugees escape their dependence on others, regain their self-respect and experience a sense of self-worth. They can acquire new skills and maybe return home.

Always focus on how to help others. One gets used to horrors. It sounds blase but it happens. You have to look behind the nightmares and focus on how you can help the person in that incredibly painful situation. For example, in Tanzania I met a little boy who was always clinging to the adults around him. I was told that he had witnessed his parents buried alive. “This should not be allowed,” I thought. You see these kinds of atrocities and you cope by helping. So we focused on how we could make that boy’s life better.

Even when things get me down, I stay positive. No matter how many horrors I witness, I see so many great things too, so the balance is always in the positive. I interact with people who give their time to make others’ lives better. That’s inspiring and gives me hope.

Sensitivity is the key. When volunteers enter a conflict zone or a disaster zone such as the Tohoku region, I hope they are prepared for encounters with people who have lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods. Volunteers need training to always find something positive to talk about and to avoid personal questions.

Be inspired by others and relish new experiences. Not one day is the same as another. I work with so many people that I can’t get bored. In the past, no matter how challenging a job was, I always got tired of it after some years. But this work is still stretching me.

Life is people and people are fascinating. I get inspired by the projects that I visit and by the people who make the most of their situation.

Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a reporter on NHK’s “journeys in japan.” Learn more at: juditfan.blog58.fc2.com Twitter: judittokyo