NIHONMATSU, FUKUSHIMA PREF. – For Marie Louise Towari, who fled the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, Fukushima remains a place of hope where people helped her and her family find refuge 20 years ago.
Believing it is now her turn to stand by the people of the northeastern prefecture, the 49-year-old Rwandan has been offering constant support to those forced to evacuate due to the disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant that started in 2011.
“I was given hope by the people I met. So I want to be a person who can pass on hope to others to help them carry on living,” Towari, who lives in the city of Fukushima and has acquired Japanese nationality, said in fluent Japanese.
After the huge earthquake and tsunami hit the Tohoku region on March 11, 2011, and triggered the nuclear crisis, Towari was advised by the Rwandan Embassy in Tokyo to evacuate from Fukushima. But she told the officials she was not going anywhere.
“It would be a lie if I said I wasn’t worried at the time. But I’ve lived with my neighbors, helping each other, and I thought I shouldn’t leave just because it was a difficult time,” she said.
Instead Towari, who heads a nonprofit organization that promotes education in Rwanda, and other members of the NPO started delivering Rwandan coffee and tea to displaced people in gymnasiums and other places used as shelters.
As the evacuees moved to temporary housing starting around the summer of 2011, Towari made it a monthly routine to hold what are now called “Rwanda Cafe” gatherings in two prefabricated housing complexes in the city of Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture.
“I initially thought I wanted to share some time with the evacuees. Perhaps they wondered at first ‘What is a foreigner doing here?’ But as I continued visiting them, they showed an interest in me . . . and now they have become like friends,” Towari said.
What participants do during the few hours of the Rwanda Cafe gatherings depends on the mood, Towari said. During a gathering in February, Towari, wearing a brightly colored traditional dress and head wrap, cheerfully chatted with around a dozen elderly evacuees as they sipped Rwandan coffee and sang karaoke.
Yoshiko Amano, 63, from the town of Namie, which remains deserted due to contamination from radiation, said the gatherings are “soothing.”
“We just have lighthearted chitchat. Probably the greatest comfort to us is that Marie Louise listens to what we say. Even if we don’t say anything, she makes us feel that she understands our feelings. I feel so reassured when I meet her,” Amano said.
Towari’s empathy for the nuclear evacuees appears to be particularly strong as their predicament brings back memories of what she went through during the Rwandan genocide, in which it is estimated around 800,000 people were slaughtered in just 100 days.
The ethnic bloodshed began shortly after she returned to Rwanda from Fukushima Prefecture, where she stayed for about 10 months starting in spring 1993, to study dressmaking and to learn Japanese under a Japan International Cooperation Agency-related program.
“My heart was filled with excitement when I went back to my home in Kigali. . . . But all of a sudden, I could not continue my everyday life because of the civil war. Bombs dropped and I just ran away with my three children to seek safety,” Towari recalled.
After reuniting with her husband, the family arrived at a refugee camp in neighboring Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Life at the camp was extremely tough, with children dying of cholera and dysentery every day. Towari earned money by selling doughnuts and managed to send a fax in hiragana to her host family in Fukushima Prefecture, saying: “I’m alive, please help me.”
Thanks to the help of her acquaintances in Fukushima, Towari and her family arrived in Japan in December 1994. She settled in Fukushima, but she was working on a school construction project in Rwanda when the prefecture was hit by one of the world’s worst nuclear crises.
While continuing to work on the Rwanda school project, Towari said she must have made around 100 visits to the Fukushima crisis evacuees.
“I know so well how painful it is when you cannot return to the home of your dreams. So I just want people to put aside the sorrow at least for a moment and enjoy a tea party,” she said.
Towari also stressed the importance of continuing assistance, saying her own experience shows her that the passage of time can weigh on disaster victims.
“I don’t remember any of the pain before I arrived at the refugee camp. I just headed far, far away. But after you stop running and pause, you start thinking about your situation. ‘Why am I so unlucky? Why is it me?’ This is the moment when people really need someone to stand by them,” she said.
As the Rwanda Cafe gatherings enter their fourth year, Towari said she feels her relations with the evacuees are reaching a new stage.
Amano and other evacuees started making garments and bags from secondhand clothes at the suggestion of Towari, who heard of the massive amount of clothing in relief supplies that remained unused.
Welcoming such initiatives, Towari said: “I feel our exchanges are no longer one-sided and we have come to the point where we might be able to work on something together. This would not have happened if we only met once and said goodbye.”
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