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In August, 2011, AmeriCares opened an office in Sendai to oversee the distribution of long-term aid focusing on restoring access to health services, helping survivors cope with trauma and loss, assisting evacuees and the disabled. Led by Ramona Bajema and Kyoko Sakurai, we remain firmly on the ground in the disaster-affected areas, committed to helping the people of Japan rebuild their communities and lives.
As the Japanese disaster response moves into year two, many aid groups have moved on, but not AmeriCares. Our office in Sendai is unique as we are one of the only international relief organizations – and perhaps the only one – to maintain a physical presence in the affected zone.
This provides a launching pad for two remarkable women – Ramona Bajema and Kyoko Sakurai – to travel extensively through the three hard-hit prefectures in northeast Japan. Ramona is an American who holds a PhD and speaks flawless Japanese. Kyoko is Japanese with the outward appearance of a delicate flower – concealing the steel backbone that helped her through lengthy tours of duty as a humanitarian aid worker in Sudan and Pakistan.
This dynamic duo has formed strong bonds with a multitude of Japanese partners, which is the key to AmeriCares effectiveness. They work closely with those most in need of help, and often hear beneficiaries express surprise about the fact that they return again and again – navigating the narrow, winding mountain roads to conduct site visits, evaluate requests for funding from local groups or just offer support and encouragement.
Ramona and Kyoko realized from the start that an office in Tokyo, where most aid groups are located, just would not do. By being among those most affected by the tragedy, day in and day out, they have developed a deep understanding of the unmet needs and are making a real difference in the lives of people still struggling to recover.