For refugees, the first six months are the most difficult, according to one of the first people from Syria whose application was accepted by Japan.
“For six months you cannot have anything — even a bank account and a cellphone. You are just isolated,” Jamal, who is 24 and hails from Damascus, said of his life after landing in Japan in 2013.
“The only thing that Japan I hope to change is the first six months,” he said in English at an event held in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward on Wednesday.
Japan is known as one of the least-welcoming countries for asylum seekers. In 2015, only 27 out of 7,586 applicants were granted refugee status.
Even after arriving, asylum seekers are not allowed to work for at least six months after submitting their refugee status applications.
At present more than 400 Syrians are living in Japan, including about 60 who are in the process of applying for refugee status, according to the Japan Association for Refugees. As of the end of 2015, Japan had recognized only six Syrians, including Jamal and his mother and sister, as refugees.
Instead, Japan accepts most Syrian asylum seekers on a basis of “humanitarian consideration,” allowing them to stay temporarily. But such people cannot summon their families or receive public support, such as language lessons, which would help them to start a new life in Japan.
Seeking asylum, Jamal has suffered from Japan’s infamous refugee recognition system.
After his home in Syria was destroyed by the war, Jamal, who only discloses some aspects of his identity out of concern for the safety of his relatives, moved to Japan with his mother and sister in 2013, because his uncle lives in the country with his Japanese wife.
“It was the hardest decision we have ever made,” Jamal said of leaving Syria.
“When (our house was) bombed, my father was in Qatar working. So I was responsible for my sister and my mother,” Jamal said. He also had to send money to his father, who was forced to go back to Syria because the company did not renew his contract.
The eviction forced Jamal, who had been an English literature major at Damascus University, to work illegally in Japan as a member of a demolition crew.
“I don’t have money to get protection tools for me. So every day I go back with scratch or injury. But I had to ignore everything to continue,” he said. Because of the injury, he suffered tetanus and almost lost a leg.
After he was granted permission to work, Jamal started working at a cafe in Tokyo and then as an English teacher for kindergartens. He sometimes had to work 14 to 15 hours a day.
After a year and a half of waiting, Jamal’s refugee status was finally recognized in 2014.
The recognition changed his life dramatically.
After inviting his father to Japan, he had more free time to enjoy soccer, which he calls his “best hobby.” He could also take Japanese lessons provided by the government. He is now applying for a university in Japan to continue his study.
“When I was in Syria, my dream was to graduate from the university and continue my future,” he said. “My dream was to have the same life that I had in Syria — playing soccer and being a university student again.”
Even though his dream seems to have come true, Jamal said he can never be happy about his circumstances, given that so many Syrians are still suffering.
“You cannot be happy, because your own people are dying while you are having fun here or you are trying to create your future,” he said.
Jamal is also sometimes plagued by online comments that show a lack understanding of the situation faced by Syrian asylum seekers.
“When some articles said that I work as an English teacher for kindergartens, some people said, ‘Don’t teach our children terrorism or your bad tradition.’ Others said, ‘You are taking our taxes so go to your home. We don’t need you. We don’t need refugees here,'” he said.
“All of my Syrian friends I know here are working to provide their living expenses for them and their family by their own without taking anyone’s tax or anyone’s money,” Jamal said.
“We escaped because of war, not because we are poor people or we do not have money. We have been fighting … to reform our country to become better.”
Despite some flaws, Jamal sees the situation in Japan as improving, referring to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s announcement in May that Japan is willing to accept 150 Syrians as exchange students.
While the figure is not large compared with the numbers taken in by some Western countries, “I would say it’s a big step for Japan,” Jamal said.
“Many people ask me that ‘Do you think that Japan should accept more refugees to come here?’ I don’t say yes nor no,” given the many social and economic problems Japan must overcome, he said.
“But I always hope or wish to at least accept all Syrians (who) are already living here. … We are, I think, less than 500 persons. So I think it’s not a big problem for Japanese government to accept all of them.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.