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Earlier this year the government announced an economic relief fund as part of measures to deal with the impact of COVID-19. Every resident in Japan was eligible to receive the ¥100,000 payment, but not everybody felt that they needed the money.

Trishit Banerjee, a chemistry masters student at Tohoku University, first moved to Sendai from Mumbai in 2015 to study. Currently on a scholarship program that means his tuition and living expenses are covered, he didn’t feel the financial pinch felt by others due to the pandemic.

“I didn’t really need extra cash to pump my wallet,” Banerjee says. “At that time I was reading how other students and people all over Japan were financially affected by this pandemic.”

Moved by the “heartbreaking” effect that the novel coronavirus was having on people around him, Banerjee decided to donate his share of government money to those who might need it more, such as “local family-owned restaurants.” After posting on Facebook groups in search of a place to offer financial aid, Banerjee’s friend Justin Velgus got in touch to suggest helping out Foodbank Sendai.

Working together, the pair set their sights on a minimum goal to collect ¥100,000 for the organization, with a “dream goal” of ¥400,000.

“We wanted to collect the money, especially from foreigners, to express solidarity and love for the city by its international community,” Banerjee says. “We personally contacted over 100 people using Facebook and email and decided to collect cash by hand. Around 90 percent of them are living in Sendai and 100 percent have some connection to the city.”

Hitting up colleagues, fellow university students and professors over a two-week period in July, the friends were able to collect donations from 65 people, totalling ¥502,500.

“This far exceeded our dream goal. It is also important to note that many of these people haven’t received their share of (the) emergency support fund yet, however, they still contributed to the best of their abilities,” says Banerjee.

Foodbank Sendai, set up in May by Wataru Ogura, was the main benefactor of the funds, and after consulting with Ogura, they decided that the money would be used to support 100 international students along with 300 local residents of Sendai. The excess of ¥102,500 would be spent on the expansion and management of the food bank over the coming months. The cash raised was enough to feed 400 people for a week.

Poverty in Sendai may not be easy to identify at first, concealed by the facade of a modern city in a developed country, but the problem is one that affects many of the city’s residents. Ogura explained to Banerjee that the poverty level among single parents in Sendai is 50.8 percent, with women more often affected due to the lack of work opportunities available to them.

“In India, poverty and hunger is starkly visible. It is easier to see the basic challenges that developing countries grapple with,” explains Banerjee, adding that Sendai’s poverty is hidden in plain sight, in the day he would see young people on benches drinking trendy bubble tea, while late at night the same benches would be occupied by homeless people.

“These observations made me realize that similar challenges exist everywhere in different ratios and probably under better cloaks,” he says.

The two-week fundraising campaign was initially intended to be an immediate remedy for the hole in wages caused by the pandemic, but having already supported around 970 residents in Sendai to date, the work of Foodbank Sendai continues. There are plans to forge ahead with fundraising efforts, as well as recruiting volunteers and translators who would like to do their bit to help out.

“We will be working on many of these ideas and hope to aid our city better,” Banerjee says. “To be able to give back in any form, makes the heart happier.”

For more information on Foodbank Sendai, visit blog.canpan.info/foodbanksendai.

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