Handing over a little help

Japan, May 25, 2011

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  • Handing over a little help
  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A 500 yen — about US$6 — voucher to Sunlia, a store that sells household goods, clothes and food. Mercy Corps and Peace Winds are passing out packets of vouchers like this to Japanese families as they move into temporary housing. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Maiya, one of the two stores where displaced tsunami survivors can use their vouchers. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Onigiri — a popular Japanese food made from rice wrapped in seaweed, with a filling of fish or pickled produce — is one of the items widely available at stores such as Maiya and Sunlia. Photo: Christopher Cabatbat/Mercy Corps

After weeks of planning and hours of stuffing vouchers into envelopes, actually handing something to someone who needs it should be the best part of this job. In a way it is, but it can also be one of the hardest. After focusing on problems and solutions in the abstract, actually seeing the people who have lost so much makes the disaster real again.

We did the voucher distribution at the orientation meetings held by the local government for people moving into temporary housing. I watched the faces of the people lining up at the registration table: old women hunched from years of tending rice paddies, old men with hearing aids, young women holding toddlers, a few couples.

The city government, struggling to deal with the enormous demands of the past few months and with many of its staff displaced themselves, had only sent a few people to manage the meeting. Even with assistance sent from other municipalities, plus me and my Peace Winds colleagues, Yohei, Handa, and Takeshi, the line was moving very slowly, but nobody seemed impatient. All of them had done a lot of waiting in lines recently. As I handed over the envelope holding the keys to their new apartment, trying to give each person a smile, I had to wonder what they had lost besides their houses.

Next to me I could hear Handa-san explaining to them about the vouchers. Each person received a set of gift cards from two different stores in Ofunato, the only two large stores that were open in the weeks immediately after the tsunami.

“Oh, Maiya and Sanria!” the old women would say, nodding as they recognized the names of the stores. “Oh, you’re giving us that much? Such nice people.”

Maiya is a large supermarket where people can buy the kind of food they haven’t been able to get in the evacuation centers (a few days earlier, wandering around Maiya while waiting for a meeting to arrange the vouchers, I heard an old man walking past the freezer say “Ah, ice cream. If I had a refrigerator I would by ice cream.”) Sanria is a department store that includes clothes, toys, a dollar shop, stationery and another supermarket.

After we had given out keys, vouchers and information packets to everyone, we stayed to listen to the orientation meeting. The city government representative explained to people where to park if they still had a car, how to change their address with the post office and sign up for gas, water and electricity with the forms in their information packet, and when to put out the burnable and non-burnable garbage.

Almost all the temporary houses are being constructed on the sports grounds of schools, since there is very little empty land available in the cities, and the school principal asked people to be respectful of students and quiet during class time.

At the end of the meeting someone raised a timid hand. “And so when can we move in?”

“Any time from today,” the city official responded.

There was a shuffling pause.

“So, we could move in now?” The people at the meeting had only been informed the night before that they won the lottery for this round of temporary houses.

“Yes, that’s fine. You can move in any time.”

There as another pause, and then, as the meeting ended, people who had been homeless the day before got up from their seats and went to find their new homes.