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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Sendai girls end healing Aloha home-stay

Hawaii gave survivors safe haven to regroup

Special to The Japan Times

HONOLULU — The brightly colored markers and the construction paper are ready. Stamps and stickers, prepped to be peeled. Scissors sit on piles of magazines spread out on the table.

News photo
Safe haven: Host Kelly Tomioka and her two children sit on the porch of their home in Kailua, Oahu. JESSICA CONTRERA PHOTO

A group of 16- and 17-year-old girls stand near the table in the Honolulu health clinic meeting room, waiting patiently for permission. Someone gives the OK, and they rush the table. Grabbing craft supplies like candy, they start to work.

The assignment: make a collage about how you are thinking or feeling. The problem: how exactly does a teenage girl feel after surviving an earthquake, tsunami and a nuclear crisis?

The girls are from Sendai Ikuei Gakuen High School in Miyagi Prefecture. Thanks to an exchange program, they are studying at I-Lion Hawaii School.

For nearly three months they have been living in Honolulu, attending school and recovering from the Tohuku earthquake and tsunami that devastated their lives.

While much of the world is aiding Japan financially, a group of teachers, families and counselors in Hawaii is giving aid in a much different way — through supporting the girls.

About a month after the calamity, employees at the I-Lion Hawaii School learned that Ikuei Gakuen School would be sending 24 third-year high school students — all girls — to Honolulu.

All were eager to help but were unsure if bringing exchange students to Hawaii was the right thing to do at that time.

"A lot of the students who come over here, just under normal circumstances, they're dealing with homesickness," said Patrick Cox, an English and social studies teacher at I-Lion. "Not only would this group be dealing with that, they would be dealing with the aftereffects of the tsunami. This was weighing heavily on our minds."

Twelve families volunteered their homes for the students to live in. Some of the host families speak Japanese, but most do not.

Host Kelly Tomioka, mother of two and wife of a Japanese businessman, was ready to open up her heart and her home.

"When we saw the tsunami, it was heartbreaking and we wanted to do something," she said. "It didn't feel like enough to just send money. We thought that hosting these students would be such a great opportunity to encourage them and send them back home with new hope and a refreshed spirit.

"We could be sending some of that Aloha back home with them."

I-Lion Principal Earl Okawa wanted to ensure that the host families were prepared.

Two weeks before the students arrived, the families and staff met at the Honolulu Japanese Cultural Center for a training session with Ken Lee, a volunteer for the American Red Cross who had been conducting psychological relief sessions for Hawaiian residents impacted by the disaster.

"They knew they were going to be living with these kids and they were worried. There was a lot of anxiety about what they should anticipate with these 16-year-old girls coming out, and they wanted to be prepared," Lee said.

He provided the families with an overview of the emotional impact that people suffer during and after a disaster. Lee also instructed them on how to identify signs of posttraumatic stress disorder.

The families learned the magnitude of loss the girls had experienced; several of their friends, family members and homes had been washed away.

"It's bad enough to have an earthquake, and then a tsunami, and then the radiation. Then you have the loss of structural things like houses and schools. Your entire community sometimes is wiped off the map," Tomioka said. "I cannot even imagine what that does inside of your heart."

After one postponed arrival date, the girls reached Honolulu on April 25, accompanied by a teacher from Sendai.

Nearly all of the host families welcomed two girls into their homes, hoping to quickly establish relationships and routines.

The students attend school five days a week. On the weekends, they and the host families spend time together.

"We try to do an 'ohana' (family) picnic each weekend to allow the girls the social connection with families outside of the school," Tomioka said. "It is a wonderful time of relaxation and casual island-style fun."

As the girls adjust to their new surroundings, the host families don't talk specifically about the disaster. The school has declined media requests to talk directly with the girls to protect their privacy.

"We are trying to help them mentally first," Okawa said. "English classes, social studies, have all become secondary to the needs of the girls."

Tomioka tries to frequently engage the two students and her family in "fun, lighthearted" activities. They avoid the heavy subjects.

"We don't take them to the ocean, we don't talk about it, we don't expose them to news stories or anything that could be a trigger or reminder," said Tomioka. "We try to put more seeds of joy in their life. This is their safe haven, their harvest to come home to."

But the effects and pain of trauma are there, just under the surface.

School staff and families watch for warning signs in the actions, conversations and school journals of the students. They know that many may be going through symptoms of PTSD, such as increased anxiety, insomnia or depression.

However, PTSD isn't easy to detect. Culturally, Japanese don't show emotions the way most Westerners do.

"They don't complain and they don't really let you know when they are suffering inside," Tomioka said. "But I can see it in their eyes."

To help, Okawa involved the girls in Project Kealahou, a program to serve Hawaiian girls aged 11 to 18 who are victims of significant trauma.

"We have three goals," said Tia Roberts, director of Project Kealahou. "Reduce trauma symptoms, give a connection to place and land, and reconnect the girls with themselves and their families."

The girls attend weekly activities where they experience Hawaii while learning about mental health.

It was during their second week when the girls were asked to make a collage about their feelings.

Roberts wouldn't say exactly what the images included, but for most of the girls the scenes appeared unrelated to the disaster at first. When the students were asked to explain their work, connections were easier to see.

Teacher Patrick Cox said he now believes the school made the right decision in bringing the girls to Hawaii.

"I feel that the girls are moving past it," he said. "These girls are remarkably resilient and overwhelmingly positive."

The students will return to Sendai on Thursday.

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