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Wednesday, May 6, 2009
NPO marks 30 years of refugee aid
Refugees International Japan still striving to raise funds and awareness level
By MASAMI ITO
In May 2005, Jane Best, president of Refugees International Japan, visited a refugee camp in Tanzania and met people who had fled conflicts in neighboring countries such as Rwanda, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A staff member at the camp pointed out one boy who was not interacting with the other children and kept clinging to adults. The boy, Best learned, had witnessed his parents being buried alive.
"He was obviously suffering from the scars from his parents' murder and the mental problems that went with that," Best said. "I suppose he was only about 10 or 12 — how can you witness that?"
But the boy's story, Best recalled, is only one of many atrocities she has heard about during visits to camps and areas where RIJ has funded projects.
"This boy is just one of many who experience such awful things," Best said. "How can we stop such cruelty? Why do people do this to each other?"
RIJ, an independent nonprofit organization based in Tokyo, marks its 30th anniversary this year. It was established in 1979 at a time when people were fleeing their war-ridden homes in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
"RIJ raises funds in Japan through sponsorship, memberships, events, activities to support projects for refugees and internally displaced people around the world," Best explained. "So all our funds go to projects in other countries."
Best visits various project areas every year. In 2007 she went to Uganda and Sudan, in 2008 she traveled to Colombia and this year she will visit West Africa. Through her travels, she finds out how RIJ funds are being used and sees through her own eyes the reality of the lives of refugees.
RIJ-funded projects focus mainly on empowerment, community management, education and skill-development, Best explained.
"The people we are supporting are not involved in the conflict, they become caught up in the conflict, forced out of their homes, they lose everything, they lose self-respect, confidence," Best said.
"These are the invisible effects of conflict that not everyone likes to address because people like to see a clinic or a school built — but in helping refugees and internally displaced people, one of the most important things is getting themselves back together again," she said.
Since its founding, RIJ has distributed $7 million to 500 projects in 50 countries throughout the world, including Sudan, Uganda, Colombia, Thailand, Lebanon and Gaza.
RIJ has remained based in Tokyo, which some consider unusual as Japan is not known for being friendly to NPOs and nongovernmental organizations. Even Diet members complain that a culture of donating has yet to take root in this country.
"In the last 10 or 15 years, there has been more interest in NPOs working in Japan and the NGO sector is building here," Best said. "It is in its infancy, but there are more and more."
The RIJ president's advice for Japanese NGOs is not to rely too much on government funding and to focus more on developing their own money sources to increase awareness.
"NGOs seemed very much like an area that the public didn't need to worry about, because the government would do it," Best said. "I think fundraising is a really important part of it all . . . we all need to get out into the community more."
Best points out that Japan is not only one of the world's leading countries in economic terms, but also one of the most generous when it comes to overseas aid. One of RIJ's important roles is to engage more Japanese people in understanding refugee issues, because once they become aware, they are keen to support the organization's activities, she said.
RIJ donors include not only many international companies with branches in Japan, such as Virgin Atlantic Airways and the Hyatt hotel group, but also domestic companies, including Showa Shell Sekiyu K.K., Suntory Holdings Ltd. and Mitsubishi Jisho Property Management Co.
"It is a challenge, undoubtedly, it is a challenge in explaining why and how people can help," Best said. "But you know, the successes are very rewarding."
To commemorate its 30th anniversary, RIJ is planning a major event June 6 called "Rhythm and Hope" to celebrate "the courageous journeys of refugees through a day of music, art, fashion, food and film." The event will feature a performance by Senegalese drummer Latyr Sy. The date was chosen because it falls close to World Refugee Day on June 20, Best said.
"The theme of the event is pain, hope and future so that people get to understand the problems of displacement, how we can build hope and how our funding and other people's funding have provided hope for people who have been displaced, and to move into the future of what we can do," she said.
The highlight of the event will be a screening of "Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars," a documentary about a group of refugees who formed a musical band while living in the Republic of Guinea after fleeing Sierra Leone's civil war. The group has toured the world and even performed at the Fuji Rock Festival in 2006.
The film depicts the pain and suffering the band's members, who lost their loved ones in the war, went through, but also captures how music saved them.
"The film is a great message of hope," Best said. "Hope is one of our key words . . . it is important and I think we should always keep hope."
The group's Web site is www.refugeesinternationaljapan.org