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Saturday, March 3, 2012

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Volunteer workers repair the interior of a tsunami-damaged home in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture. Making livable homes affordable to the area's residents is one of the core works of the NPO It's Not Just Mud. COURTESY IF IT'S NOT JUST MUD

Self-professed 'cynical Londoner' sets things straight for volunteers supporting recovery efforts in Tohoku

'Alternative labor' helps Ishinomaki rebuild


Special to The Japan Times

Jamie El-Banna, 27, is a self-professed "cynical Londoner" who says he's "not a nice guy" and admits he is known to many as something of a party animal interested mostly in getting drunk. But a look at his recent track record reveals he's now spent over nine months volunteering in tsunami-ravaged Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture (quite a distance from his Osaka apartment), that three of those months were spent living in a tent, that he's the founder of an accredited NPO and, along with being a respected figure in Ishinomaki, is known to thousands of others in and outside Japan.

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Jamie El-Banna, founder of the group, talks about his work to help the people of Ishinomaki. BARBARA BAYER

Not nice? "It's not like I'm a criminal or anything," El-Banna explains. "It's just I'm not out to save the world. I'm not a hippie. I'm not a bleeding heart. I'm just doing this because I think it's the right thing to do. If everyone else disagreed, I'd still be doing it. It just happens that everyone agrees it's a nice thing."

His group, with the rather odd name It's Not Just Mud, grew "organically," its name taken from one of the blogs El-Banna kept in the early days of volunteering in Miyagi. The name was in part in reference to what most volunteers were doing immediately after the quake, digging through not only mud but a whole lot more. It was also a reference to just how much such work meant to many.

In addition to fixing up damaged homes and doing other physical work, It's Not Just Mud, known more simply as INJM, makes efforts to build new communities. It also continues to act as a facilitator, coordinates with other groups in the area, and walks newcomers through all that is needed to lend a hand. Only recently accredited with NPO status, INJM has, according to El-Banna, repaired over 40 houses since it "started keeping records."

Likewise, its workers have collectively logged some 15,000 work-hours, all at no cost. There is a steady flow of free labor, with some people coming for a day, others for months. All now stay at two privately owned houses damaged in the tsunami, their use donated by the owners and made livable by INJM workers.

Many of the houses in the stricken area are in a similar state: damaged but salvageable. However, exorbitant costs demanded by builders prevent many owners from fixing their homes back up. Those who can afford to pay are often kept waiting for months. "The little money provided by the government for repairs isn't enough, so many people are having their homes torn down, which the government will pay for," El-Banna explains. "But people don't have the money to rebuild."

INJM is providing a priceless alternative, volunteers who come in and, for nothing more than material costs, which amount to a fraction of what professional builders would demand, make the homes livable again. A typical project involves first clearing out the debris. "Everything is upside-down and inside-out," El-Banna says. "You take that out first, then you take off the walls, then the floor, take out the mud, put down the new floors and put up the new walls.

"Most people wouldn't have the confidence to try, for example, to put up drywall, but it's very simple if someone shows you how," claims El-Banna. "Anyone can learn in under an hour. Of course, it's never going to look like a professional but most people are very happy to have a wall and floors, and it's warm and it's clean."

The lack of experience in anything related to disaster relief or repairing buildings, the cornerstone of the group's work today, extended to El-Banna back in early 2011. In Japan already three years and teaching English in Osaka, El-Banna did try to help after the quake but was told amateurs weren't wanted. "So, I thought, OK, I'll just donate some money and forget about it." When a group of volunteers later asked him to join with them in May, he was surprised to learn there was something he could do after all, and "I saw that I could make a difference." El-Banna went back to Osaka with a new perspective.

"I was angry," he says. "I thought, 'Why are people going around doing nothing?' Sure, I was self-righteous, but my view had changed. Literally, 14 hours ago I'd been driving in areas where people's houses had been destroyed, and here I was on the Loop Line and people are drunk going to bars. There are so many lights. It's so bright. There are so many cars, so many fashionable people. It just felt strange," he says and remembers thinking incredulously, "It's the same country."

El-Banna quit his job and headed back to Ishinomaki lugging four boxes of rations U.S. Marines had given him on his first trip up. He planned to stay two months at the most. He set up his tent on a campground on a university campus and stayed there until September. Showers were a 30-minute walk away and the university facilities were off-limits to volunteers. He never did leave Ishinomaki.

After being encouraged by a friend to branch out from his digging activities, El-Banna took to searching the Internet. He discovered people wanting to help but not knowing what to do, where to go. "I contacted them saying, 'I'm not a stalker, I'm not a crazy guy, but I'm here. I can help you.' "

El-Banna says he was surprised when people actually started coming. Now, an estimated 500 have. They come from within Japan and from without, with the overall ratio of Japanese to non-Japanese about 50-50.

For the most part, El-Banna finds, volunteers seem glad to have come, for however long. "Occasionally you get people saying it's not what they're wanting. You have people coming in wanting to be some kind of hero and it's more like a laborer. The time for heroes has been and gone. People don't need heroes now. They just need assistance. If someone is hoping to get a tear-filled 'Oh, thank you so much, you've saved my life,' they're not going to get that," he says, telling it like it is.

And setting people straight when necessary, El-Banna says, is "something I've never been shy about doing." Such as the time he had to remind a disillusioned volunteer who was complaining that he hadn't come to paint a shop but that he'd come to do something "more important," that the shop they were working on had taken weeks to repair, that they had started from zero and that the painting was only the finishing touch and "had huge meaning."

Straight-talking, practical-minded that he is, El-Banna also points out that the work, though it comes at no cost to those they help, still needs funds to keep it and their crucial core of long-term workers going. Donations have fueled operations until now, but backed now by the NPO status, El-Banna is searching for sponsors to help out. "I'm English, I don't like asking for things, but now I can say, 'We've been vetted. We've been here a while.' I'm not just someone saying, 'Give me money to give to my friends.' "

Corporate sponsors are what he's hoping to find, "sponsors who appreciate how important staff is. Their spirit is that of voluntary work but, speaking realistically, they need a future," he says of the regular team. "While these six months they've been volunteering are quite lovely, losing six months' salary is considerable.

"For those individuals who only have $50 to donate they can feel that it's not going to administration costs. It goes to other costs, like gasoline, and things everyone agrees that without you couldn't get things done. None of it goes into someone's wallet. Individuals can give with peace of mind. Corporations can take social responsibility. I think it's an ideal way of doing things, I think," he says and hopes he can find supporters who feel the same.

El-Banna wants to see the group continue beyond Tohoku. "It would be a waste for anyone to have developed these kinds of niche skills to then, in a year, two years, just give it up," he explains. "So this is also where the sustainability of making a living comes in. Wherever there is a large-scale disaster and people want to jump in and help out, I'm going to be there."

The needs, unfortunately, in Tohoku are still great, El-Banna emphasizes. "It is a First World disaster . . . but the situation is not acceptable for a First World country or a leading country, like Japan is. "If you see these metal boxes, which are basically what temporary housing is, it's not very nice and the community doesn't feel good. Given the opportunity to live in an actual house or a part of it, people would choose that," El-Banna points out.

Even living in an apartment, as opposed to the free temporary housing, would be preferred by most people, he says. "An apartment gives you a feeling of self, that 'this is my place.' In temporary housing the walls are very thin and you just feel like a drone living in a hive."

Now, one year on, seen from the outside, the area looks a whole lot better. There is semblance of normalcy. Pictures of the area, however, fail to reveal the empty buildings, the destroyed livelihoods and the gaping holes in people's lives that will likely never be filled.

Being there for people, in some small way, is another big part of INJM's work.

"No one," El-Banna says, "wants therapy. No one wants to feel that they're broken. Little things make a big difference, like giving people a chance to speak to each other, like having a cup of tea together and just chatting. People in temporary housing may not know anyone around them. It's very difficult to take the first step and to make friends. We'll organize tea parties, but it's not about the tea."

Knowing when to reach out, when not to, is a skill, but also something El-Banna says he leaves up to a volunteer's "common sense." Some people want to talk about their experiences, others don't, but there is no prying.

"You have to play it by ear," El-Banna says. "Sometimes we go to a job site and someone will latch on to one person. She's very lonely. For that person I'll just say, 'You just talk to her. Don't worry, we'll do the rest.' Again, it's not what I came to do, but it's incredibly helpful. It's a great thing to do for someone who is lonely and is reaching out to you, and some people can reach out much more easily to young people or to foreigners."

It's all in a day's work, in days far different from El-Banna's days prequake. "I wasn't living a particularly remarkable life or doing anything interesting," he says of his time in Osaka. "I was not even living for the weekend. I was just living a very empty existence.

"I wouldn't call this empty now, and although I don't think I'm a great person or anything special, what I am doing is great. It's a wonderful thing to help people."

For further information see INJM's website (in Japanese and English) at: itsnotjustmud.com


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