Americans welcome in Japanese mothers and children whose lives were upended by triple disaster.
A girl makes mud pies in the dirt, a toddler takes wobbly steps in the grass, a boy picks blueberries and another builds a snowman. Those are simple pleasures in Oregon, but not for the children of Fukushima, Japan, where a nuclear disaster in the wake of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami forced them indoors for months and required them to wear protective gear when they did venture outside.
At least 11 kids and their parents, refugees from Fukushima and other parts of Japan, are visiting Oregon this month and living with U.S. host families as part of a grass-roots effort to give them a break from the stress and health risks they had been facing at home.
More than 46,000 people living in Fukushima Prefecture have left since the triple disaster. Worries about the impact of radiation on their children were paramount for the mothers who brought their families to Oregon. Children under the age of 18 are most sensitive to the effects of radioactive iodine, one of the main isotopes released during the disaster, according to the Centers of Disease Control. Researchers released a study showing that low levels of radioactive iodine had been found in the thyroid glands of children from Fukushima. The announcements have stirred great fears among the Fukushima mothers, some who said they don’t want to go back.
Chifumi Brown, a Japanese-American therapist who is hosting a Japanese family, is holding a weekly informal therapy session for the mothers. “They’re really in the survival mode of needing to get away,” she said. They need “a breath of fresh air, literally,” Brown’s husband, Christopher, later added.
The families connected with each other through “Boshi sokai-shien network hahako”, a network set up days after the disaster struck by Yuko Kida, a part-time English teacher living in southern Japan who wanted to help out families looking to escape Fukushima. The name of the network means “mother-child,” Kida explained, noting that pregnant women and babies are most vulnerable to radiation. To date, about 45 families from countries such as the U.S., Australia, Britain, Thailand and Malaysia have offered to host families, with another 500 to 600 offers from elsewhere in Japan. A few hundred Japanese families have been placed with host homes so far.
“I wanted to do something directly, not just donating the money to some organization. I just really wanted to do person-to-person … help,” said Kurumi Conley, a Japanese-American glass artist hosting the Fujimori family in her home with her husband and two daughters.
Abe, the mother of a 3-year-old, said the stay with their host family was critical to their mental health. “I wanted my daughter to have a summer, to be able to go outside, and so I started looking abroad,” she said. Abe added that the U.S. break had given her a new resolve to confront the challenges she and the others will face when they soon head home. “I think this made me stronger.”