Foreign refugees pitch in to help

Volunteers head north to assist tsunami victims

by Setsuko Kamiya

Staff Writer

Myo Myint Swe, a 42-year-old refugee from Myanmar, said that since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, he wanted to help those in the Tohoku region affected by the devastation.

A 20-year resident of Japan who received his refugee status in 2005, Myo said he knows how difficult it is to be forced into fleeing home and seeking refuge elsewhere, but felt that in some ways the situation for people in Tohoku could be worse.

“We’re refugees because of human-made disasters. In the case of the people in (the) Tohoku region, they are evacuees of natural disasters. But while we have someone to cast our anger at, people in Tohoku, they lost their families and homes but don’t have anyone to blame because it’s an act of nature,” he said. “It may sound a bit strange coming from me, but I really feel sorry for them.”

In late April, Myo, a master’s student at the University of Tokyo, went to Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, for five days to clear up piles of debris at different locations along the coastline. One place was a strawberry farm whose greenhouse had been destroyed by the tsunami.

“I had been watching the situation on television, but when you actually see the damage with your own eyes, it’s really shocking. I never knew that tsunami can be this terrifying,” he said.

Myo was among a group of volunteers that included other refugees as well as foreign exchange students and Japanese nationals who took part in a Tohoku disaster relief project organized by the Japan Association for Refugees, a nonprofit organization supporting asylum seekers.

According to JAR spokeswoman Mihoko Kashima, the volunteer project that began in late April and will continue until the end of this month was inspired by the voices of refugees like Myo who said they wanted to help people in Tohoku. So far, more than 70 people have traveled to Rikuzentakata through the program, including about seven refugees, she said.

Myo, who is looking to return to the area in June, said he also hopes the project will serve as an opportunity to raise awareness among Japanese that asylum seekers are just like anyone else and are part of the community.

He became good friends with the strawberry farmer and wants to continue the friendship.

“When I told him that after 20 years in Japan this is my second home, he asked me to make Rikuzentakata my third home. I really want to do that,” Myo said.

While the JAR project was inspired by refugees who can’t return to their home countries, it also became an opportunity for some foreign exchange students who have resisted the “social pressure” to return to their countries and are staying in Japan to continue their studies.

Loic Latyr Sar, a 24-year-old French Senegalese and a student at Sophia University in Tokyo, was among the JAR volunteers who went during the Golden Week holidays.

In Rikuzentakata, Sar said his group removed debris from a road to make it safer for the local elementary school children. They clear all sorts of things, from electric poles and vending machines to kitchen sinks and clothing. Over two days, his group cleaned a stretch of road about 200 meters long.

“When we were first given the task to clear this road, there were only about 15 of us with our shovels and our hands. So first, you think, ‘This is impossible, we can’t do this,’ ” he said.

“But at the end of the day you realize you’ve done this. It’s not just satisfactory but you really start to see that little by little you can change things. It’s really gratifying, and I encourage a lot of people to volunteer.”

After the disaster Sar spent a few weeks with friends and relatives in Osaka and Singapore. During that time he said he received many messages from worried relatives and friends who urged him to leave Japan.

But he returned to Tokyo to continue his studies, and also sought opportunities to volunteer.

“I think we’re actually lucky enough to be here and can do something,” Sar said, adding that he wants people to know that there are foreign students who are continuing to stay in Japan.

JAR said its Tohoku disaster relief project will continue in various ways depending on the needs of the locals.

Meanwhile, with the help of the exchange students involved in the relief project, the group is planning a fundraiser Saturday in Daikanyama in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo. Details of the event, “Show Your Colors for Japan,” can be found at refugee.or.jp/event/2011/05/28-1627.shtml.