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Dispatch #4 from the AmeriCares Japan Team in Iwate

  • July 28, 2011

On July 2, AmeriCares Japan team members Ramona Bajema and Kyoko Sakurai, traveled to Iwate Prefecture to meet with partner Nippon International Cooperation for Community Development (NICCO). AmeriCares recently awarded NICCO a $60,000 grant to support a psychosocial program serving women, children, and elderly survivors designed by a psychiatrist specializing in trauma care.  Below is Ramona’s detailed account of the challenges for survivors and their crucial need for ongoing recovery programs.“In this remote area, family and local ties run very deep and friendships span decades.”During our 90 minute drive, the landscape slowly changed from the stunning natural beauty of rivers, mountains and flower gardens to utter destruction.At our destination in Rikuzentakata, we met our contact, Mr. Higashida, at a hilltop school now serving multiple functions: the grounds serve as a site for temporary homes, defense force equipment and the Japanese Red Cross headquarters, and the gymnasium provides shelter for evacuees.Inside the building, volunteers work with small children. Normal school activities have recently resumed and the hallways are lined with children’s handmade posters expressing hope for a brighter future.  The computer room has been transformed into a busy headquarters for government and NGO teams. 

Photo by Ramona Bajema; All Rights Reserved

Photo by Ramona Bajema; All Rights Reserved.After a quick tour, we went back to the disaster zone with our driver, Mr. Suzuki, whose family home was destroyed. While they are grateful to be out of the shelter, and in a temporary home, Mr. Suzuki and his family were saddened to be separated from their friends and community. In this remote area, where local ties run deep and friendships span decades, separation from neighbors is a common and traumatic plight for survivors. It contributes to their sense of isolation and further loss of community.We drove to meet Mr. Kanno, a volunteer from a sanitation company, who was busy working to eradicate the serious health risks caused by large numbers of dead fish from local factories along with the rats, flies, and mosquitoes they attract. We saw fish rotting in the debris and factory floors covered in maggots. Mr. Kanno explained the serious concern about disease, especially during the hot, humid summer months. Throughout the disaster zones, teams have been hired to spray pesticides. To minimize the risk of chemical toxicity, Mr. Kanno is working to identify agents with the lowest risks to the soil and water system as well as the townspeople.Next, we traveled to Mobira, a former campsite located high up in the mountains that is now home to 50 new temporary shelters.  The site is lovely, but poses logistical problems, since nobody owns a car and access to shopping and other commerce is nearly impossible. Moreover, a gathering place for eating, entertainment and children’s activities has not yet been built. Our team has been working to encourage planners to include locations in temporary housing sites where the families can gather together and re-establish some sense of community.At the Moriba site, we visited with a group of about 15 elderly men and women who sat at low tables learning how to make charms out of seashells, kimono cloth, and tiny bells. The group seemed happily engaged in the craft-making, led by a NICCO volunteer who specializes in art. The is deceptively simple activity is part of NICCO’s “Heart Care”,  a well organized program of occupational therapy funded by AmeriCares. The program helps survivors resolve trauma and rebuild social-ties in subtle and culturally appropriate ways.  Group therapy and counseling so commonly available in the US to help people cope with depression and anxiety are not typically used here in the Tohoku region. This provides an alternative.

Photo by Ramona Bajema; All Rights Reserved

Photo by Ramona Bajema; All Rights Reserved.Dr. Tebayashi, a Transcultural Mental Health Advisor from Taisho University in Tokyo, was also a participant. This jovial, kind-hearted man welcomed Kyoko and I and encouraged us to join the group. Dr. Tebayashi explained to the group that I was from the US working with AmeriCares. Every expressed deep gratitude, and said Americans were the “first to arrive” in the area to distribute goods. “This surviving tree had become the symbol of the town.”On the way back to the school, we stopped for one last glimpse of tsunami zone in Ichinoseki.. Mountains of debris towered overhead, smashed cars were piled on top of each other, and mud stretched as far as the eye could see. However in the distance, one solitary tree towered over the landscape. This surviving tree has become the symbol of hope for this town facing the daunting task of reconstruction.In an undamaged part of Ichinoseki, we noticed a shop with a poster of that tree on the wall. We enquired about where we could purchase one for our office, and learned there were none in the area for sale. Then, to our surprise, the shop keeper took down his copy to give to us, apologizing for the pin holes. When we left, we noticed the mural of that very tree painted on the shop’s outside wall, with the rallying cry repeated across the Tohoku region – Ganbatte! “Let’s Go!”Read MoreDonate Now