A group of university students from Aichi Prefecture has started a volunteer group to assist refugees.
Helping mainly people from Myanmar who have come to Japan to escape the internal conflict in their country, they are teaching them Japanese.
Their interactions with Myanmar citizens have made them think about what they can do to contribute as they plan to expand the scope of their activities.
“In the past, I only thought that refugees deserve our sympathy,” admitted the group leader, 21-year-old Shuto Tsuzuki from Nagoya City University.
That attitude changed three years ago when he attended a seminar held by postgraduate students who started an NPO for refugee support in Nagoya.
He was “overwhelmed by the passion of his seniors who are only a few years older” than him, and started helping out.
Tsuzuki encountered refugees from Rwanda, Nepal and Myanmar among others and noticed that most had a cheerful disposition despite the hardships and rough situations they had to undergo.
“As I began to interact with them as friends, my initial feelings of sympathy disappeared and I found myself wanting to know more about refugee issues,” he said.
Two years ago, a nationwide organization led by university students was established to address refugee issues and Tsuzuki started a division in Aichi with the help of others.
They named their group P782 in Aichi, with P chosen as a symbol for peace and people, while 782 stands for the number of universities in Japan.
The group has about 10 members, ranging from freshman to seniors, who attend Chukyo University, Aichi University and Nagoya City University.
The group meets one Saturday morning a month at a cafe to study refugee issues.
Last July, the students started a Japanese language class in Nagoya for Myanmar refugees. The members had initially helped with a class organized by another group, which was open to all nationalities.
However, after receiving numerous applications from refugees, P782 in Aichi decided to start another language class just for Myanmar refugees so that they can study with people from the same country.
There are many minority groups in Myanmar, and repeated conflicts with the military regime have led to many displaced citizens fleeing the country.
Most of the people attending the language class avoid talking about the situation back home. Many work in factories, often on night shifts. Many are also unable to take adequate time off.
“Sometimes I wonder whether it would help more if I get them to talk about their personal experiences or if I should leave them be,” said Tsuzuki.
Roughly 15 people, aged between 20 and 40, attend the fortnightly Sunday class. The group hopes to increase the number of student volunteers so they can offer individual tutoring in the future.
The students only charge ¥200 for each class since most of the refugees have financial difficulties. The money collected is then used to cover room rental and transport costs, though in most cases, the students bear the cost themselves.
“I think this experience of interacting with the refugees living with us is essential in helping us maintain a global perspective even after we graduate from college,” said Tsuzuki.
According to the Tokyo-based Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees, the highest number of asylum seekers in the period between 1982 and 2015 were from Myanmar, with 5,496 applications lodged, of which 213 were granted refugee status.
This ratio is considered high in Japan, which has been criticized by many Western countries for its low rate of refugee acceptance.
Since 2010, Japan started accepting Myanmar refugees who fled to refugee camps in neighboring Thailand.
This section, appearing Tuesdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Jan. 26.