With applications for refugee status reaching record levels, a number of Japanese businesses are providing employment and training to people forced to flee their home country due to war and persecution, with emphasis on genuine vocational opportunities rather than charity.
Mohammad Mawaheb Seraj Eddin, a 26-year-old Syrian, is one of the refugees engaged in such a program.
He left his home country for Turkey in June 2012 amid the intensifying civil war between the government forces led by President Bashar Assad and rebel groups.
“The war started and I wanted to get away from the worst bombing and power outages. It was a horrible situation in Allepo,” the biggest city in Syria, he said in an online interview.
But life wasn’t easy in Turkey and he had a tough time finding the means to support himself.
Having left behind his studies in computer engineering at Allepo University, he found it extremely hard to land any sort of job, not only those requiring professional skills but also manual labor, because he couldn’t speak Turkish.
Around that time he was introduced to a Japanese Internet technology firm through Shotaro Yamanaka, a representative of the Japanese private organization World Link, which does what it can to support refugees via the Internet.
While staying in Istanbul and now in Belgrade, Seraj Eddin worked as a freelance computer programmer for Vesper, a company based in the Ginza district in Tokyo.
He started out as a paid intern in March and now works eight hours online every weekday, earning roughly the local minimum wage while staying in accommodations provided by a Serbian nongovernmental organization.
“This job gave me a reason to survive when I felt I was hopeless,” he said. “It has given me a chance to build experience rather than just (providing) support. I am so happy.”
Learning from the first successful IT project involving Seraj Eddin, Yamanaka hopes to connect more refugees with businesses and provide chances for them to enhance their skills.
“I just could not think of his situation as somebody else’s problem when I got to know him through a social-networking site,” Yamanaka said. “We want to create a mechanism through which companies will not just give out financial support but can also benefit from hiring refugees and generate profit.”
Apart from the IT business, World Link has so far connected 12 Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and the Czech Republic with Japanese nationals wanting to learn Arabic or English online at a cost of $10 per hour.
“In this way, people can directly learn about the situations in Syria by speaking with their teachers and help them out while receiving language services wherever they are,” he said, adding he hopes it will be easier for ordinary students or businesspeople to participate in programs to support those in need.
Meanwhile, nongovernmental organizations say that here in Japan there is an increasing number of refugees having difficulty finding employment even after receiving work permits. According to government data, a record 2,545 people applied for refugee status in 2012.
Nail salon Arusha, located in Minato Ward, Tokyo, is one business offering career opportunities for such people. After training about 20 refugees from scratch, it now employs six from countries including Myanmar and China.
A 44-year-old woman from Myanmar who declined to reveal her real name for fear of her safety has been working as a manicurist at the salon for about two years after going through a three-month training program.
Some 20 years ago, she fled her small village after participating in protests targeting the former junta in the 1980s.
She said she had little choice but to flee, initially to Thailand before reaching Japan, as many of her friends and acquaintances, including those who joined demonstrations with her, were either killed, detained or disappeared.
She mainly worked at restaurants in Japan while learning the language and renewing her long-term resident visa every three years.
She needed to give up the restaurant job due to health problems, but she was given an opportunity to learn how to apply gel nails, which she says gave her a ray of hope.
“I got hooked on nails,” she said. “When nails become prettier, our spirits are lifted. I thought that I can make women happy by making them beautiful.”
Although she is worried about her unstable situation, with her application for refugee status being rejected and her two children remaining stateless, she said she is finding joy in her work.
Arusha Corp. President Kanako Iwase, who opened the nail salon in 2010, hopes the initiative can help create chances for refugees to acquire vocational skills and eventually become self-sufficient.
“I did not know much about refugees in the beginning, but after talking with them face to face, I was shocked to learn how dire their situations are,” she said. “I want customers to come and talk with them in person and be aware of refugee issues.”
Masaru Yoshiyama, deputy secretary-general of the Japan Association for Refugees, said most asylum seekers coming to Japan have done so out of desperation, without any opportunities to study about Japan or learn the language.
Many of them face financial hardships, even after being recognized as refugees.
In addition to imminent legal and material support, Yoshiyama said the association hopes to assist refugees so they can eventually sustain themselves by finding decent work or setting up their own business.
So far, some refugees have opened their own companies or restaurants and created employment for other refugees, partly supported by special micro credit provided by the association and other organizations, Yoshiyama said.
“Refugees are often considered a burden on society, but we hope that image will change” as more of them become successful in their work and entrepreneurship, he said.