Filipino priest embraces postcrisis challenges

by May Masangkay

Kyodo

Filipino priest Resty Ogsimer vividly recalls the overwhelming task he faced when other Filipinos living near the radiation-spewing Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant fled their homes and sought temporary refuge in Tokyo.

Acting on a request from the Philippine Embassy in Tokyo, Ogsimer, known in the Filipino community as “Father Resty,” and staff at the Catholic Tokyo International Center telephoned members of Tokyo-based Filipino communities, asking them to take in the evacuees, mostly Filipino women married to Japanese men and their children.

Kenji Arikawa, who works with Ogsimer as assistant director of the center, recalled that as many as 50 people stayed in the basement of the Franciscan Chapel Center in Tokyo’s Roppongi district. The center served as a shelter for the evacuees, for several weeks assisting about 400 evacuees during that time.

Ogsimer visited Fukushima Prefecture — home to the No. 1 nuclear plant — and other disaster-hit areas, including Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, and Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, to deliver relief goods. He also celebrated Mass for Filipinos, many of whom are Catholic, acted as a liaison between the Filipino communities there and arranged “stress debriefing” sessions for victims, which were conducted by the Network for Filipino Carers in Japan.

On some trips to Fukushima Prefecture and other affected areas in Tohoku, the center also sent a team of both Japanese- and Filipino-speaking staff to cater to the needs of children with one Filipino parent and one Japanese parent. The visits and debriefing sessions were always done by teams comprising leaders of the different churches in the Archdiocese of Tokyo and volunteers.

“We observed that there were some affected areas in Fukushima (Prefecture), such as Koriyama and Sukagawa, where help was not reaching them as fast as in other places like Ofunato and Kesennuma, where media coverage is heavy,” the priest said.

Now, a year on, there are more updates about the stricken Fukushima plant. Communication among the Filipino community about a response in the event of a similar crisis has also improved.

On the eve of the first anniversary of the March 11 catastrophe, the former evacuees reunited for a memorial held at the Franciscan chapel, with roughly 100 Filipino women and children recounting their experiences and joining in dancing and singing.

Myrna Ishikawa was among the women singing a Japanese song with the message, “I love you, Fukushima.” Ishikawa evacuated to the chapel last year after the quake-and-tsunami disaster triggered the nuclear crisis.

“The disaster taught us to value more the bonding among my compatriots, unlike before when we were focused on our work,” said Ishikawa, who is involved in a civic aid group created last April, a month after the disasters.

The group, whose name, Hawak Kaway Fukushima, uses a Filipino expression meaning “join hands,” has been providing information to Filipinos based in Fukushima, including those who cannot understand Japanese. To address employment needs, the group has also trained some Filipinos to be English teachers.

Kathryn Goto, who heads the group, remembered how she and her family were unable to leave their home in the city of Fukushima, 60 km from the nuclear plant, for five days due to radiation concerns.

Goto and her family, however, didn’t consider evacuating afterward as she was so busy helping fellow Filipinos evacuate while coping with the crisis through the Fukushima International Association, a local group that coordinates international exchanges.

“This time around, we would be more prepared,” Goto said, adding that the most pressing need now is how to look after the health of their children who continue to live in Fukushima. Constant health checkups have become the priority, especially for those living closer to the plant.

Philippine Ambassador to Japan Manuel Lopez, who attended the memorial event in Tokyo, assured the Filipino community the embassy is ready to assist them in the disaster-hit communities, noting a medical team intends to visit the communities there soon.

Last June and July, three Filipino medical doctors provided psychological and social care to close to 200 patients, mostly Filipino women married to Japanese nationals, in disaster-stricken Iwate and Miyagi prefectures, two other hard-hit areas.

As of 2010, government figures show, there were around 4,000 Filipino residents in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. With the honorary consulate of the Philippines in the Iwate capital of Morioka now closed, the embassy in Tokyo now takes care of the needs of Filipinos in those areas.

For Fukushima Prefecture alone, the Catholic dioceses of Tokyo, Yokohama and Saitama are in charge of assisting their needs, Ogsimer said, adding that their next plan is to visit the prefecture in late June to look into the current needs of the Filipino community there.

“There is still much to do in terms of meeting the social care needs of those affected by the disaster,” Ogsimer said.

With more challenges lying ahead, he expressed optimism that Filipinos can weather the crisis and continue to be of help to their Japanese neighbors.

“We are in this together,” he assured the approximately 200 people who had gathered for the memorial.