Refugee and foreign exchange student volunteers remove debris in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, earlier this month
Refugees often get a bad rap. Just being referred to as a 'fugee automatically places a stigma on a person, conjuring up images of someone who is poor and destitute, running for their lives from any number of threats-- both natural and man-made-- fleeing from their homelands with next to nothing and depending upon the good graces of whatever country they land in for support; in short, a burden on the host country.
Of course this is a broad, often inaccurate stereotype of what a "refugee" is. Refugees are also conscientious, generous, and well-off-- sometimes they are even masters students at the University of Tokyo.
Take for example, Myo Myint Swe, a 42-year-old refugee from Myanmar who has been living in Japan for the last 20 years. Myo may be a refugee, but he is also a student at Todai and a frequent volunteer who considers Japan his second home.
Recently, Myo and several other refugees and foreign exchange students travelled to Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture as part of a volunteer project organized by the Japan Association for Refugees. The group helped clean up debris from the March disaster in many different locations, such as a strawberry farm that had been littered with trash swept in by the tsunami, or a stretch of road that needed to cleared so elementary school children could get safely to school.
Myo explains that after watching the coverage on TV, he wanted to do something for his adopted country, not only to "raise awareness among Japanese that asylum seekers are just like anyone else and are part of the community," but also because he personally sympathizes with the victims of the disaster.
"We're refugees because of human-made disasters. In the case of the people in (the) Tohoku region, they are evacuees of natural disasters. But while we have someone to cast our anger at, people in Tohoku, they lost their families and homes but don't have anyone to blame because it's an act of nature," he said. "It may sound a bit strange coming from me, but I really feel sorry for them."
Being a foreigner in Japan can be really difficult. I imagine it's even more difficult if you are a refugee who went there because you had little choice in the matter and were just trying to stay alive.
I applaud Myo, and others like him for getting out there and volunteering and making a good name, not just for refugees and foreign exchange students, but for all foreigners in Japan. Through activities like this volunteer effort, they're proving to the often hard-headed and biased Japanese citizenry that Japan's foreign residents can be an asset to the community, not a burden on it-- regardless of how they happened to land on the island.
In my mind, they're also making up for that time when I tripped and spilled my beer on an elementary school student outside a train station. Good on ya, mates! The circle of Gaijin karma is complete.