The three of us, Jeff, Jacinta and myself, pulled out of Ueno Station early Valentine’s Day on our way to Mizusawa Esashi, a little town in Iwata Prefecture about 250 miles from Tokyo. Jeff managed to make arrangements with a women there who has been coordinating various relief efforts to support many of the evacuees living in and around the Morioka area.
Our mission: to distribute some of the Christmas presents we had collected over the past several months. Back in December we decided to collect gifts to help some of the many people who had lost their homes and let them know that they were not forgotten, that people the world over were aware of their situation and that they were still being thought of.
It worked. Within days of our initial conversation, a website and presence on Facebook went up, and gifts started pouring in from around the world, around 250 in all by February. Those who didn’t donate gifts donated money, some of which was used to purchase a heater for a school set up in a temporary facility in the small costal town of Otsuchi, which was all but washed away after the tsunami in March.
After arriving, we were brought to a small hotel where Chiaki and a local merchant association arranged for around 80 elderly evacuees to be shuttled in buses, and treated to an afternoon of food, a soak in the hot springs on the premises, and finally a concert. And at the end, we passed out the gifts we had collected.
Through our few simple gestures, we managed to give some moments of relief to people who had experienced the unimaginable, and helped them reconnect to the community at large. One of the many things I learned that day was about how so many of the people who have had to leave their homes have been put into apartments far from where they live, isolated from all they know, and forced to start over again with little to no support network. This has been especially hard on the elderly, many of whom are living in a form of solitary confinement, out of sight and out of mind. One woman said she hadn’t spoken to anyone in nearly eleven months and it was her first time out. Another family, three brothers and a sister – all retired, were living in Futaba, the town right near Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, and they are still coming to grips with the fact that they will never go home again. While the world press has focused on all the work that has been done to clear debris, some small pockets remain virtually untouched and people are doing it on their own. There are still a lot of unanswered questions, but at least for that day we were able to let these people know that they are not forgotten and that there are many people out there that care about their plight.
We made two more trips the following day, one to a evacuee center in the Morioka, the capital of Iwate Prefecture, and one final event that evening. We were planning on making an early morning run down to Otsuchi to visit the temporary school and take some presents to the kids, but unfortunately our plans had to change at the last minute. As is usual with trips like this, you go in with your mind open and try and use the opportunities you have in front of you to do good. I take back with me lasting memories of all the courageous people I met over those few days: people who have somehow managed to keep standing in the face of adversity and uncertainty; people who have dedicated themselves to helping rebuild; and the genuine warmth and hospitality of everyone. I can’t describe the experience except to say that I’ve been enriched being in their presence and hope I will always remember how that warmth feels. I also plan on going back soon, and I hope we can continue to touch the lives of these people, even in some small way that helps them more forward…