Friends From Qatar

On May 18, Socks for Japan welcomed two volunteers from Qatar: Shanta and her son Hashim. They, along with Yuya from Tokyo and longtime volunteer and day-trip manager Hiroyuki, joined me on a distribution to schools, shelters, and the Watanoha neighborhood in Ishinomaki.

Shanta and Hashim are American. Years ago, Shanta taught English in Japan before moving to teach it in Qatar. When tragedy struck on March 11, she checked on old friends and felt an immediate urge to help her former host country. Yuya is one of those lucky half-Japanese people who grew up bilingual and slips easily between Japan and the United States, knowing both cultures and languages well, and counting friends in each country. Hiroyuki has lived in Australia, and his dream is to move there to work as a sushi chef and perfect his English. Thus very international, our team set off to do some good in Ishinomaki.

The day began on a funny note at a rest stop where Hashim told me his preferred drink is lemon water. “Lemon water?” I chided. “What kind of nine-year-old American kid drinks lemon water?”

“One living in Qatar,” he replied. Right!

Hashim remained a hit throughout the day. His bright smile and complexion led one survivor to call him that “cute little brown boy” and others to just shriek kawaii, cute, almost every time we entered a room. Taking along such popular people adds a special energy to the trip and furthers our mission of boosting spirits.

In the Watanoha neighborhood, where we’ve become so well-known that people wave to us as we drive by, survivors lined up to accept socks after receiving gyouza dumplings from a mobile kitchen.

At the elementary school we visited mid-day, students busily cleaned the hallways and outside areas with a vigor that made Shanta and Yuya remark, “You never see that in other places.”

At the allotted time, they lined up for socks and letters.

From the school, we drove through a neighborhood so badly damaged that we stopped to inspect. One of its former residents, a grandfather on his daily stroll to assess progress toward a semblance of normalcy, stopped to speak with Shanta. She recalls that he “very politely informed me that a tsunami had come through, and that his house had also been destroyed by it.”

On the way back to our van, Shanta found near “a heap of hastily dumped personal effects,” an annual new year’s postcard, called a nengajo, dated during the time she lived in Japan. That touched her. She wrote to me later, “Japanese love saving letters and other correspondence, and I hope to be able to track down either the sender (Ishinomaki Nan-Ko) or receiver (Ishinomaki Kadanowaki Aza). The sender’s phone number just rings, so no success yet, but I finally have the addresses translated to be able to write letters. I’ll keep you updated on that.” Volunteers who take such a personal interest in cheering the hearts of survivors are just who we want.

We drove through the rest of the destroyed neighborhood, up a hill to a park overlooking the primary tsunami inundation area. There, we took a pleasant lunch break in the sunshine.

From the hill’s edge, however, a reminder of why we had come stared back at us with an intensity urging us to keep moving.

At one school shelter, we distributed in the gymnasium:

Next, we proceeded to classrooms toting hundreds of pairs of socks. Shanta noticed bento dinners distributed as we arrived. By the time we walked the hallways, people had finished eating and sat in a receptive mood. The glimpse of daily life in a shelter stuck with Shanta more than the disaster zone itself, partly because of the dignity with which Japanese people conduct themselves in the worst of circumstances.

Down this hall we went:

Shanta wrote that it was unforgettable to walk “through the hallways and see little coats hanging on the coat hooks, little cubbies with personal effects, still waiting to be retrieved by parents or students. Realizing that they may never be retrieved for an obvious reason is sad, but at the same time shows the strong testament to the respect that the shelter residents have for their owners.”

People in rooms were happy to see us, and almost every room produced a goodie for Hashim. By the time we left, he carried a small plastic bag and reusable tote bag filled with snacks and drinks and a flashlight. Here he is holding the flashlight in his right hand as the man who gave it to him hugs his neck.

One grandmother changed from a relaxed posture to the respectful kneeling posture, called seiza, when we entered. Almost everybody smiled. To a person, the survivors thanked us for coming.

One of the rooms left Shanta so shocked she needed to sit down. It was a storage room where an extended family had wedged itself into the arm-span spaces between stocking shelves, setting up residence in thin lines along the floor.

When people remain cheerful in such conditions, it demands respect. Nobody complains. If we run out of socks or don’t have a certain color or size, people shrug it off and usually thank us repeatedly for going out of our way to help. That’s how one lady put it to me. “I’m sure you have better things to do than carry a bunch of socks to a bunch of people you don’t know,” she quipped. I thought a second, then said, “Not really. Anyway, I know you now.”

You know who else knows that lady and many other survivors of March 11? Their new friends from Qatar, one of whom searches for the sender of a new year’s card and the other of whom returned home with more than he brought.

There is magic in this line of work. It makes itself plain when people from halfway around the world use their own money and time to help strangers who’ve lost everything, then receive gifts of love from those very strangers. It has taught me that we don’t really lose everything. The most important parts of ourselves remain through whatever tribulation finds our path, and generosity requires surprisingly few resources. The desire to give is the point, the storied thought that counts.

We inched our way through the disaster zone back to the expressway, where an exhausted little brown boy buried his head in a box and slept all the way back to Sano.

Hashim told his mother when they’d returned to Qatar that he wished time could have moved more slowly. “Each time we were distributing socks,” he remembered, “Mr. Jason would say, ‘OK, after this bag, we have to go,’ but so many more people needed socks. If time would have moved slower, we could have given out more socks.”

Amen to that.

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  1. Rose Yamauchi
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    A wonderful commentary on a beautiful, heartfelt work.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. May you be blessed.

    We were happy to be able to take part in your campaign.

  2. Ja Wood
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    We so hope that things are better now and that the socks have gone some way to helping people feel warmer. We send our love to all who help with the project and all who have suffered.

  3. Posted June 26, 2011 at 4:37 am | Permalink

    Such a poignant and timely post, and I’m talking about music. However, the first thing I saw this morning was your sidebar. Thanks so much for the notice about the album. It doesn’t get much better than an old rocker and a flute.

  4. Posted July 6, 2011 at 8:14 am | Permalink

    Such a touching story of your wonderful work distributing Socks for Japan. Thanks for sharing it and all the heartfelt emotions and photos that go with it.

  5. Posted November 2, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    What incredible imprints this journey must have left in the kawaii young man Hashim’s mind — kudos to Shanta for exposing her son to such work at this tender age — so we may look forward to more humanitarian leaders in this world as his generation takes over.

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