Japan Quake Rpt: Murrell May 20 ’11

A Drop In The Bucket: Reflections on Ishinomaki Aid

Debris cleared street

A video clip here, a snapshot there… To be honest, one of the most difficult things I’ve done in the past two weeks is take videos and photos of our relief team’s experiences in Ishinomaki. I get this horrible, sick feeling in my stomach each time I switch on my camera and allow the lens to glance around. Why? Because every one of those times – I feel like a tourist of someone else’s suffering. I’m not, but it feels that way. Yet, we still need to take the pictures and the videos. We need to show others what *is* happening – not because our team is doing something good and we want people to know, but because there continues to be a great need, and we desperately want others to continue helping!

I posted short video updates on my FB wall throughout our 9-day mission, and some of our team members have posted pictures, but my preferred method of relating my experiences is through writing. It’s also therapeutic… I have struggled with the question of how to protect the people – especially the children – from being exploited, while also sharing our experiences and their stories of survival, loss, hope, pain, and the ongoing struggle to restore their lives. I still don’t have an answer, but I’ll try my best to refrain from using their names. I suppose that as long as that sick, awful feeling continues to come when I snap a photo or capture video, then I know what we’re doing isn’t exploitative, but it’s out of passion for these people that we’re compelled to recount what’s happening. Please keep helping!

About Our Team

Team from Mito and Other Churches
Team from Mito and Other Churches

Our relief team worked in Ishinomaki over a nine-day period during Japan’s national Golden Week holidays (April 29 – May 7). Our 13-member team consisted of 7 Japanese, 5 Americans, and 1 Canadian. We transported the team in two cars, plus two large vans filled with supplies (for us, and for distribution to people in Ishinomaki), and a large truck filled with supplies for distribution. Bottled water, food (especially fresh fruits & vegetables, baby food, and instant ramen), school supplies, clothes, baby food and clothes, shoes, cleaning supplies – so many items were donated by generous people across the Mito area! Two of the biggest collection points were Midorioka Elementary School and Joto Elementary School, where teachers and staff were supportive, and parents of students rallied together to help gather supplies and organize them.

Church of Christ - East Disaster Relief
Church of Christ – East Disaster Relief

Our team represented the “Church of Christ – East Japan Disaster Relief” committee, a group managing funds donated from churches in many countries. We established a ‘base camp’ in Sendai at the Sendai Church of Christ building. Almost every day, three vans full of people, work supplies, and distribution goods made the drive to Ishinomaki (usually 1.5 hours). In Ishinomaki we partnered with Be One ministries, a network of house churches in Osaka that has been actively providing aid in Ishinomaki since the tsunami.

Together, we cleaned a children’s park; helped an older woman clear her home of the mud and soot left by the tsunami; hosted 4 or 5 supply distributions for people struggling to survive in their damaged homes/neighborhoods; and assisted with hosting 3 barbecues in Ishinomaki neighborhoods and evacuation centers. It was an intense week, but well-balanced with hard labor, food service, supply distribution, and giving personal attention to the people of Ishinomaki. Our days in Sendai/Ishinomaki passed quickly.

First Exposure

Debris pile
Debris piles everywhere you look.

Our caravan of vehicles crawled into Ishinomaki on Saturday morning, part of a slow-moving river of cars – aid workers, emergency crews, residents, etc. At the edge of the tsunami’s reach we noticed the first water lines, excessive amounts of dirt at the side of the road, and just a little trash… The water line here was low. As we drove on, the water line gradually rose. One meter. Two meters. Five meters. The destruction and the debris worsened. We soon passed cars that were crumpled and stacked on each other, boats that still dangled out of 2nd-floor windows, steel utility poles that appeared to have been bent and twisted as easily as pipe cleaners… And then there were mountains of splintered wood that used to be homes and businesses. It was as if someone had carved a road through a massive garbage dump.

Landscape littered with debris
Landscape littered with debris

We passed through some fields that were littered with scattered cars and trucks, seemingly left behind by a child that had tired of playing with them. Foundations lay bare, wiped clean. A destroyed supermarket sat just off the road; at 10:30 AM, a couple hundred people were already lined up in front just waiting for a chance to get whatever necessities would be available and distributed. Large bulldozers and excavators were operating on mangled piles of rubble in a nearby neighborhood. Everyone wore rubber boots and the masks; workers had the added hard-hat and typical uniform…


Clearing debris into piles

I can still smell the stench of rotting fish and feces. In a neighborhood park, we waded through the trash that had either been left by the tsunami or had been pushed there to clear roads. It was here that we met with our connections from the Be One ministries group out of Osaka. The park was nestled in the shadows of several tall apartment buildings. The first floor of all these buildings had been completely gutted by the tsunami, but residents continued to live in the upper levels. The objective for the Be One team and our team – clean up and organize the debris in the park, clearing it away from the playground equipment so that the neighborhood children could have a place to play again, and the ultimate goal was to complete the task by Monday afternoon so we could host a barbecue in the park for the neighborhood.

I can still see the pictures uncovered in the debris, the faces of a happy woman with her companion in a time long-forgotten now. The child’s shoes, the wallet… Everywhere there are reminders of someone’s life swept away. Living room furniture, items from a store (still sealed in their packaging), clothes, books… We worked slowly at first, picking through the debris, sorting into piles of burnable wood, metals, etc. We also watched closely for personal items that people may want to retrieve. By Monday afternoon, the park was looking good! Children were playing and laughing in the park, and the aroma of a wonderful barbecue wafted through the neighborhood, trying it’s best to cover the stench contained in the trash piles, and drawing residents to the joy and encouragement found in having community together.

Watanabe House before and after
Watanabe House before and after

Our team also spent several days helping an older, single woman to clean the mud and debris from her home. While many of our team worked inside the home to restore her living area, other members of our team worked to clear debris from her yard, make new doors, and build some stone steps. Her neighbor’s block & concrete wall had been pushed by the tsunami, and it lay strewn across her yard and partially leaning against her house. Our team attacked it with sledgehammers, and within a day we had broken it down to small, easily movable pieces.

I remember how satisfied we were by the end of the week, feeling that between the park and this woman’s house we had accomplished so much. After one last look at her yard and home, we turned to walk down the street, and we were immediately reminded that there is an incredible amount of work yet to be done. Everywhere. What we did was barely a drop in the bucket.

HarborWithin an hour we drove into another neighborhood to connect once again with the Be One group for an afternoon of supply distribution and then a barbecue. We thought that after all we had seen throughout the week, that nothing more could shock us. We were so wrong. This neighborhood was only 300-400 meters from the sea, and the destruction was even worse. Yet, people were still living there! The first floors of their homes had been wiped out, and many structures around them were simply scattered, toppled, or crushed – but there will still people living there! These people are in a tough position; they’re trying to restore their homes and their lives, but they’ve lost their vehicles and – in many cases – their jobs. They have no income, no way to leave the neighborhood to get necessities, and no one is bringing them food. There’s so much work to do in these neighborhoods, and so many people who need help!


BBQing in the Park
BBQing in the Park

The teams from Osaka brought so many supplies for barbecues, and we had the honor of assisting them in hosting several more throughout the week. One was at an evacuation center where about 400 people are living. Another was in the neighborhood that was hard-hit, sitting only about 300-400 meters from the sea. The barbecues were an excellent idea! It was encouraging to the people, nourishing for many who still weren’t eating regular meals, and a great stimulation to their taste buds. It was amazing to see so many people begin to line up, calling to their friends, sending messages to other neighborhoods… I’m not sure how many barbecues the Be One group has hosted by now, but I think they’ve probably fed a couple-thousand people. In that one week alone, we probably helped feed about one-thousand.

Our teams, working together, divided into several smaller groups – meat cutters, vegetable cookers, meat grillers, and food distribution line. It’s a system that worked well and fed many! I can’t sing enough praises about the Osaka team having the ability and the vision to do something like this in the neighborhoods!

Playing with the children
Playing with the children

The barbecue times gave us a chance to interact with residents. Some of us who weren’t needed in the preparation and distribution could chat with those willing to chat, play with the children, and share some laughter and hope and joy. We met some amazing individuals, and some fantastic children! We listened as some retold their intense stories of survival, trying to save others, and what they all experienced in the days and weeks after the tsunami. We gave piggy-back rides to the kids, chased them around, let them climb all over us, and just let them *be* children! Brett and I were able to connect with two sisters, seven and eight-years-old. These two sisters spent most of the barbecue perched on our shoulders or climbing on us in one way or another. I’ll never forget how hard they both hugged and held on as I said goodbye to them after the barbecue. We’ll try to reconnect with them every time we return to Ishinomaki.

Aid Distributions

Distributing commodities and vegetables
Distributing commodities and vegetables

People across Mito donated so many items for us to take and distribute – from school supplies to cleaning supplies, clothes from babies to adults, food, rice, drinks, shoes, children’s books, diapers, feminine products, dishwashing and household products, etc. One local farmer, a friend of my school’s principal, donated 23 boxes of onions grown just outside of Mito. A local convenience store manager gave several cases of bottled water. School children and their families and their family’s friends rallied together to gather items, and a few of the mothers came to the schools to help sort and organize everything. Some wrote notes to be passed on to encourage… One of my former student’s donated her school backpack and wrote:

“To the person getting my school bag:

“I live in Ibaraki. Ibaraki was also affected by the earthquake. So during the first week after the earthquake, I also faced difficulties. However, you have been having a hard time much longer than I have. But I believe that someday you can smile again. You might have to keep persevering, yet I will collect funds and do anything I can to help you.

“I won’t say ‘ganbare’ (“fight on!”) to you. Because I know that you might think, “What else can I do? I am doing my best!!” But, do not lose your hope, and let’s work together toward restoration.

“I send my support to you so you can find hope in your life.”

Lining up to pick out commodities
Lining up to pick out commodities

So we loaded all of these donations to take with us, and we hosted several distributions in Ishinomaki. Blue tarps were spread out, boxes and bags were unpacked, similar items were grouped together, and people formed a long queue for the opportunity to gather some items they needed. In groups of five and for only about five minutes they were allowed to peruse the items laid out. Someone had the unfortunate job of timing the groups, and telling people when they could go and when they had to stop… This is truly a difficult task. Yet, people were understanding and patient… We tried to be as helpful as possible, and tried to make sure everyone was able to get things they needed. Some people even made it through the lines two or three times! When there were things we didn’t have, but the people needed, they told us and we made a list of things to pick up next time.

At one distribution site, a few of us kicked around a soccer ball with several elementary and junior high boys while their mother went through the distribution… We paused for a moment to chat, and the junior high boy jumped at the chance to practice his English. He was impressive! It’s odd for junior high kids in Japan to be physically interactive, but this boy was pulling in for hugs with us quite a bit. As we talked more, we discovered that his English teacher was one of the American JET’s who was killed when the tsunami hit. We had such a fun time talking with him, and shared a lot of laughter together. As they said goodbye, we hugged these brothers and said, “We hope we get to see you again!!” He replied, “Me, too!!! Please come back! Please be my English teacher!!”

Time and again, I saw the people that I love in their faces; the older people reminded me of my own grandparents. As I saw their suffering, as I observed their need, I couldn’t help but put them in the context of my own family, and my heart ached for them and what they’ve gone through. I can’t imagine seeing or knowing that my family was experiencing such hardship and pain as these people. It strengthened my resolve to help, and to share the joy and the love which I’ve been given from God and my family.

People waited patiently in line for their chance to choose a few food items. Nervous eyes scanned the remaining boxes spread on the blue tarp before shifting back to the line to count how many more were still waiting in front of them… Debris piles, crushed and mangled vehicles, and razed foundations set the backdrop. I walked down the line, holding open a large bag filled with traditional snacks and cookies, and offered it to the people waiting. Some took one, others took two or three. One older grandmother, hunger in her eyes, grasped a handful out of the bag. Another man smiled, grabbed my arm, and whispered, “Thank you!”

A one year old friend
A one year old friend – the banana grabber

A little boy sat comfortably in his young mother’s arms. I’m almost certain she was younger than me. She stood, waiting in our distribution line in the horrifically destroyed neighborhood. I talked with them for a few minutes, played some games with the little boy, and as he warmed up to me he eagerly shifted to my outstretched arms – his distraction with me enabling his mother to gather the food and necessities their family so desperately needed. As this little one-year-old boy toyed with my beard and big nose, he spotted bananas among the produce laid out in the distribution line. His body lurched forward, and even though I was much bigger – I felt like an attachment being controlled by him. Ha! He swooped in and grasped a banana in his little fingers. From his little perspective we then flew skyward, and he was once again perched high above the ground, cradled safely within the arms of this huge foreigner. And there, in his tiny little hands, was this amazing banana. Nothing else mattered. He lifted the banana to his mouth, bit into the middle, and tore the peel with his teeth. Within moments he was discarding the peel into my outstretched hand and devouring the treasure he had seized. Between the banana and the barbecue that followed, he ate like a prince that night. As I said goodbye to him and his mother and grandmother, he lurched from his mother’s arms, wrapped himself around my neck, and left a little kiss on my cheek.

Returning Home

“How was the trip? Was it good?” I’m asked these questions often since I returned home to Mito, but I don’t exactly know how to reply. We’ve been back home for almost two weeks now, and we’re getting ready to go back for this weekend.

I can tell you that it was surreal to be home; I think each of us expected to wake up the next morning and drive back out to Ishinomaki for more work. In the first week since then, I have struggled to re-focus on my work and my life here. My backpack sat for more than a week, unpacked, on my living room floor. I walked into my classes, but my mind constantly wandered back to the neighborhoods of Ishinomaki. I wonder what the children were doing… I wondered how the parents were faring…

Peace and Thank You
Peace and Thank You

Our little helper is probably riding his bicycle around, looking for us, waiting for us to show up for more clean-up work… The two sisters are probably playing and laughing on their clean playground. We promised them we would come back to see them. Will they remember us? My little one-year-old friend is probably wishing he had another banana to tear apart with his little fingers. He ate that banana so fast… I hope he and his mom and dad are getting enough food to eat. And I wonder about the older, single lady we were helping – did the city approve her house so that she can officially live there again? How is she doing? A dozen more faces and names cross my mind. The tired eyes and distressed faces attached to eager hands of grandmothers and grandfathers, grasping handfuls of snacks/cookies out of the open bag I held. The junior-high boy and his younger brother who played soccer with us for a few minutes; the older boy’s plea for us to move there and be their new English teacher still rings in my ears, and I can still feel how tightly he drew close and hugged us.

Tonight we go back. In a few weeks, we’ll go back. Next month, and the month after that – we’ll be there at least once or twice a month. We believe in a God who gives us strength and hope and love and compassion, and we’ll share that because He gives it in abundance. One drop at a time, and eventually the bucket will begin to fill up…

Kendon Murrell, Assistant English Teacher – Mito City Schools; Mito church of Christ