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For a dozen students from Futaba Future High School in Fukushima Prefecture, a recent visit to the United Nations was a chance to share their plans to improve the lives of others by drawing from their catastrophic earthquake and tsunami experiences as a source of strength.

Despite overcoming enormous hurdles in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011, disaster that took more than 19,000 lives, the surviving students have moved forward with aspirations of choosing future paths to benefit the global community.

“Thanks to all my experiences like getting bullied, joining the drama club and studying at my high school, I think I could grow well,” Satsuki Sekine told U.N. diplomats, staff and youth representatives who gathered to hear their presentation on the current situation in Fukushima early this month as part of a scheduled visit while in New York.

The 17-year-old explained how drama can be used to portray the challenges of discrimination and conflict “not as an abstract concept but with specific and visual examples.”

Recounting how the tsunami rendered her home unlivable, she explained how her life in Tomioka as a normal 9-year-old was turned upside down.

The fear of radiation exposure from the nearby Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant after the disaster compelled her family to seek refuge in a city near Tokyo.

Instead of finding comfort in a safe zone, however, the trauma was compounded by bullies who tormented her, she said, noting they told her to go home because she was contaminated.

Sinking into a deep depression, the young girl even considered ending her life. But after returning to Fukushima and entering high school, she found new ways of coping.

“I can face life’s difficulties and hardships, not only my own, but also society’s,” she explained. Now the high schooler is more empathetic about the plight of the disenfranchised, including the millions of refugees who are now on the move in record numbers.

“Now I’d like to contribute to repairing many social problems from a global point of view and my experience. And I want many people to be able to smile.”

Ryo Endo, born in Okuma — the site of the Fukushima nuclear plant — has also realized his life will never be the same. With projections that decommissioning work on the crippled reactors will take from 30 to 40 years, he explained how that encouraged him up to want to be a nuclear engineer.

After attending scientific seminars, the 17-year-old sees serious information gaps between the potential of advanced knowledge technology and the reality of what ordinary people know.

“I think this problem is not only for Fukushima but for all over the world,” he said in his speech.

“I would like to deepen how scientists and ordinary people take each other by the hand and face many bold problems together.”

Also hailing from Tomioka, Takamasa Sato recalled his evacuation to the city of Koriyama, some 60 km away. Although situated in a safe area, he saw firsthand how rumors created chaos for people in and outside the evacuation zones. That experience has sparked his interest in media studies, including how large and small media outlets shape reality.

“Incorrect information hurts people. It can bring about conflict and war. We should avoid it and get rid of misunderstanding and incorrect information,” he stressed in his remarks. “Through this study I want to think about world issues, as well as local issues, and take actions by beginning with a small step.”

Not only have the students chosen research areas, such as nuclear disaster prevention, renewable energy, and media studies, but they can parlay their personal experiences for the benefit of others all while framing their studies around the pursuit of sustainable development, which the United Nations espouses.

Some students, such as Seijun Katono, are now motivated to learn more about how misinformation impacts the mental health of survivors. Katono, 16, is especially concerned about how false information can negatively impact those in a fragile state, including people who contemplate suicide.

Wataru Inoue, who witnessed firsthand the destruction as the tsunami swept up houses, cars and people in his neighborhood, now wants to study renewable energy as an alternative to nuclear power.

“I would like to tell people around the world about the risk of nuclear power plants,” the 17-year-old explained.

Ren Nakashima, an avid soccer player, said he is convinced negative associations people have with Fukushima can be countered by emphasizing the positive, including through the pursuit of sustainable cities and communities — a goal outlined as one of the 17 objectives in the U.N.-sanctioned Sustainable Development Goals.

“I really want our hometown to be a symbol (for) the world like Hiroshima and Nagasaki appear as a symbol of world peace,” the 17-year-old explained.

Of his encounters with the high schoolers at the event, U.N. youth representative Subhajit Saha, 20, pointed to how much he valued their fresh and authentic perspectives as young people, including some who remain refugees.

“This gives me hope, the fact that the generation of today and tomorrow is able to bring in compassion into the pressing issues of today,” Saha said.

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