Issues | THE FOREIGN ELEMENT

A Sophia University student group is building the bridges that refugees need

by Rei Ando

Contributing Writer

“Abdul” is having a bad day. Sitting on the other side of a thick glass wall at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau in Minato Ward, the Cameroon national is waiting to hear on the status of his application to claim political asylum in Japan. He has already been rejected four times.

A detainee in the neighboring cell has been here around two years, he says, alluding to a fate he is worried may also be in store for him. He toys with the gold band on his ring finger and wonders aloud if “love truly exists” or not. His Japanese wife has stopped visiting him.

With Abdul now, however, are myself and three other students from Sophia University and, for the next 15 minutes, we will be his captive audience. We have been visiting him every week for more than a year now, listening to his struggles and bringing him the occasional gift — notebooks, undergarments or a toothbrush, for instance.

Our time is up and the guard comes to take Abdul away. He grimaces and asks to say goodbye properly before he’s escorted back to his cell. He places his hand on the glass and we promise him we’ll be back in a week.

This is an average Wednesday for the students who form the Sophia Refugee Support Group (SRSG), a volunteer circle created at the university, located in Chiyoda Ward, which aims to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and forge connections between them and Japanese society. The circle is working in conjunction with a research project called The Refugee Voices Japan in which students learn how to conduct interviews with refugees and asylum-seekers currently in Japan. SRSG was established in 2017 and is fully run by students who help organize activities such as detention center visits, refugee cafes and language classes. The group is also in contact with both the Japan Association for Refugees and Amnesty International.

Japan is one of the top financial donors when it comes to providing support for refugees but the country has a notoriously low refugee recognition rate. According to the Justice Ministry, in 2017 only 20 refugees were recognized out of 19,628 applicants with a further 45 out of this total receiving permission to stay here on humanitarian grounds. Those who have been detained are reportedly held under unsatisfactory conditions with more than a dozen people having died in immigration facilities since 2007 due to illness or suicide.

These numbers tend to remain numbers, however, and that’s where SRSG began to see its mission. The group wants the public to see the faces behind the data and know the stories behind the statistics. Japanese-Peruvian student Rosa Barbaran, 21, has been a part of SRSG for two years and came up with the idea for the detention center visits. To date she has conducted more than 50 interviews.

“It was hard at the start because we had no clear idea of what we were doing,” she recalls. “When we explained the project to the refugees, sometimes they’d be hesitant to take part. But I think most of them got to the point where they want to tell us things and are happy about having this space to share their stories.”

There wasn’t just hesitancy from the refugees, the circle was only officially recognized by Sophia University in October after two failed attempts. Getting approval from the school has definitely helped in bestowing a sense of legitimacy on SRSG. What started as a 15-member group expanded rapidly to hit 120 members at the start of the spring semester.

“I learned about the refugee situation in Japan in the research class last semester and found out there was something I could do to help,” says 20-year-old Japanese-American student Sarah Birkely, who is now vice president of the circle. “I ended up going to the next meeting and loved what the group was doing and achieving.”

Apart from the detention center visits, SRSG organizes refugee cafes. These provide a safe space for students and refugees to interact with one another over pizza and drinks. Students will often donate books to the refugees and the occasional cafe will feature a theme — a recent one focused on foods of the world in the form of a potluck.

Most importantly, however, the cafes offer people who are new to Japan a chance to socialize and meet people who are both from this country or going through a similar experience in trying to navigate it.

“I remember one of the asylum-seekers, when we first met, talked in a sad tone about how he never had opportunities to socialize or practice the Japanese he was trying to learn because he didn’t have any Japanese friends,” says Japanese-American student Rachel James. The 22-year-old former head of SRSG says that’s why the cafes are necessary. “A month later, when we had our first refugee cafe, I remember his face was lit up with a big smile the entire night, he had so much fun.”

In session: Sophia Refugee Support Group conducts a Japanese class for refugees living in the Tokyo area. The classes offer people new to the country a chance to practice the Japanese they are learning. | REI ANDO
In session: Sophia Refugee Support Group conducts a Japanese class for refugees living in the Tokyo area. The classes offer people new to the country a chance to practice the Japanese they are learning. | REI ANDO

SRSG also offers language classes in which the students teach Japanese conversation to those who are new to the country so they might be able to better fit in. As a form of cultural exchange, the tables are turned and the refugees teach the students a few words in their mother tongues. Mone Ishikawa, 21, helps manage the classes and says they’ve been enriching for everyone involved.

“I believe the most important thing is that, through language classes, we are giving the refugees and asylum-seekers a voice,” says Ishikawa, “a voice that allow their stories to be heard and recognized.”

While the cafes and classes offer students a light-hearted chance to interact with people from different backgrounds, the detention center visits can sometimes feel scary and are mostly always a little draining. Their tasks are to listen to stories (which are not often happy ones), help translate documents and bring necessities.

When I joined the circle last year, I had no idea what a detention center looked like,” says Fibha Mahmood, a 20-year-old student from Pakistan and leader of SRSG’s PR team. “I decided to go out of curiosity and was devastated to see how the detainees were living. On my first visit, a woman told me she would prefer to live outside than in the detention center. Outside she said she would be uncertain over whether she’d be able to eat, but inside, despite receiving three meals a day, she said she was uncertain over her freedom and her future. She said she loved these short moments when members of our group would visit her and talk to her instead of interrogating her.

“Hearing that on my first visit, I immediately understood that, although these might just be 10 or 15 minutes of conversation, these were the only escape from the miseries of life in a detention center. I have continued to visit ever since, twice a week if possible, and it’s amazing how I have formed bonds with so many people that can’t wait to be free.”

The Japanese-Brazilian president of SRSG, 20-year-old Gabriela Nakano, echoes the idea of how rewarding the visits are and says that, even though the group is currently trying to get increased funding from Sophia University, she doesn’t mind paying out of pocket for gifts now and then.

“It’s completely rewarding, I honestly don’t think about how much I’m spending when I am buying these things,” says Nakano, who will purchase the odd item to try to help with the boredom of living in the detention center. “Obviously, I can’t buy them everything, like expensive textbooks, because I only have a part-time job.”

David Slater is a professor at Sophia University who has been instrumental in supporting SRSG.

“In this time of increasing global refugee crisis and finally the acceptance of more immigrants into Japan, this is the sort of research and support the country’s needs,” Slater says. “I am glad that it is coming from these university students, they’re off to a great start.”

Japanese-American member Jade Underland, who heads up the Japanese language classes, says that while SRSG’s diversity is a virtue, the group needs more contact with Japanese inside and outside the university.

“We can’t change the status quo without the Japanese recognizing this issue, so I want SRSG to really educate the country, particularly the youth of the country, to bring about serious changes in the government and concrete actions to help refugees.”

“Abdul” is a pseudonym as the person in question asked to remain anonymous in case speaking to the press hurt his chance of receiving asylum. For more information on the Sophia Refugee Support Group, visit bit.ly/2GL2w9G. The group can be found on Twitter (@sophia_srsg) and on Instagram at sophia.srsg.