Monday, July 2, 2012

Hope, Hard Work And Helping Hands Aid Ongoing Tohoku Recovery

Fisherman from a devastated village take to the seas again thanks to newly purchased machinery. In a small town that lost ten percent of its population, folks now have professionals to help them overcome the trauma. A Fukushima mother cries as she realizes her children are able to play outdoors safely at an away camp.

In June Japan Society premiered a moving short video highlighting three of 19 organizations so far supported by the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund (JERF). JEN, an international humanitarian relief and development organization, is working in fishing towns in Miyagi prefecture to help fishermen restore their local economy. In Otsuchi, Japanese Medical Society of America’s KOKOROGAKE program has medical professionals working for long term care for survivors’ mental health. And in Fukushima prefecture, Fukushima Kids provides children with an escape to Hokkaido for the summer.

Although the organizations are working towards very different goals, the video shows a common glimmer of hope between all of them.

The fishermen in Miyagi prefecture were once part of a vibrant fishery-centered economy. The tsunami wiped that out completely. Tatsuya Sugiura, a volunteer at JEN after losing his business partner in the disaster, says, "After the disaster, fishermen were at a loss. They didn’t know what to do. They were probably looking at the sea every day. With JERF we can provide support; the fishermen could focus on becoming positive and self-reliant again."

The refocusing is paying off. The local fishermen built a hut out of the debris from their own home, which now houses a much-needed winch provided by JEN. Hidenori Hiratsuka, one of the fisherman, says, "if we get too nervous, we can’t remain fishermen, and there won’t be a recovery if we don’t go out fishing. I am trying to focus on fishing."

He then reflects on the help from JERF: "I thought no one would help a small port like ours. In the beginning, we had no help. I wondered why no one was helping us. Then we got help; we were so grateful. It makes me cry to think of that time… I have to do my best."

In Otsuchi, a small area in the Iwate prefecture with 10% of the population either missing or dead, many people suffer from extreme post-traumatic stress. "It’s been difficult to reach out to people who have lost their homes, jobs and family members. People are suffering; some of them want to disappear, some are suicidal" says Akiko Ito, a member of Team KOKOROGAKE.

Even before the disaster, there was no mental healthcare facility in the area. Iwate prefecture established one a year after the disaster. Team KOKOROGAKE plans to remain in the area for the long term. "Even if buildings are rebuilt, goods are available and people have jobs, if people are suffering inside, it’s not real recovery," continues Ito. "Mental healthcare issues can’t be solved overnight; we started to work on this issue a year after the disaster, but it can take 5, 10, 20 years for people to recover."

The members of the team are hoping to work on not only helping people’s mental health, but also building enough trust so that the people will come to them when they need help even after the town is rebuilt. They try to be a part of the community, living in temporary housing alongside the area’s survivors and working with them in their homes. "We are medical professionals who don’t think services should be limited to the inside of a clinic. We need to be a part of the community and listen to the people about their loss and the pain caused by it," says Mitsuru Suzuki the leader of Team KOKOROGAKE.

Fukushima Kids is an organization which brings over 200 kids from Fukushima  to a camp in Hokkaido where they can escape the threat of possible radiation exposure. “During [the long breaks], we wanted kids to smile and be healthy,” explains Toru Shinshi, chairperson of the effort, “That’s why we started Fukushima Kids.”

A mother of two young girls who were able to go to Hokkaido explains how this works beyond providing an escape: "When I first saw a video of children running outside, I was taken aback. For several months... I didn’t see any kids playing outside-picking flowers, putting their hands in the river." Funding from JERF is making it possible to sponsor even more children to experience somewhere safe, and in turn, help their parents and families be more optimistic.

More Than 10 Years To Rebuild 

It’s been over 15 months since the devastating triple disasters struck Japan's Tohoku region. As of April this year, 15,857 people are confirmed dead while 3,057 are still missing. The survivors who remain in the area are still suffering: they live in the place they once called home, but in temporary housing surrounded by the nightmares of loss and destruction.

Hiroyuki Koroge, the head of office of JEN says, “I think it will take more than 10 years to rebuild it how it was before the disaster.” He refers to Ishinomaki in his statement, but this is true of all areas affected by the disasters. Japan estimates that it could take upwards of 23 trillion yen ($289 billion) to completely clear the rubble and rebuild homes, cities, jobs and lives.

In the next few weeks, Japan Society will announce the fifth wave of JERF grants. While this is only a fraction of what Japan needs, every bit helps edge Tohoku's people that much closer to a new life as the Society's video so poignantly shows. 

--Sarah Anderson

No comments: