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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23 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  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. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Kimya
    Posted June 22, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Shanta…I am so proud of you and Hashim. I can’t wait to see you in a few weeks. I love you both very dearly!

  7. Ronald Lynch
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    I wish people in american were as grateful for just the little things. Good thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Japan. I hope to get the chance to go and visit this wonderful country some day!

  8. Ronald Lynch
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    It is so awesome to see people who are so grateful for just socks. I wish people in America were the same. A lot of people here feel like they are entitled to so much more. It is a wonderful country (Japan) and I hope one day I may get the pleasure of visiting! Prayers and good thoughts go out to these wonderful people.

  9. TimHand
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Maria it is such an honor to be part of a special group of people.I praise God for all ur kindness and time that u spend for all those suffering in Japan right now.

  10. Maria (Um Hassan)
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    It is an honour to be aquainted with such kind caring people, Hashim and his Mom are dear to my heart. May they received many rewards for their continued kindness. If there is ever another trip to Japan, please count me in, I would love to support this most meaningful (work?) no it is not the right word, perhaps: kindheartedness !

  11. Hessa Al-Nesf
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Wow I loved the pictures and efforts and feelings during this trip 🙂
    God bless you for this amazing effort and I am sure that Japan and the Japanese people can overcome this disaster with the positivity and energy they have <3
    Thank you Jason, Shanta, Hashim, Yuya and I am not sure who was the last one :$
    thanks all!

  12. Posted June 21, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    My daughter is trying to get a Scholarship to go for three weeks to Japan later this year.
    It is still an attractive place to want to visit.
    In New Zealand, our Christchurch earthquake is still a problem too.
    Many came from Japan to help .

  13. Posted June 21, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    He really is the most kawaii, litte boy! And what a wonderful mother he has too. Thank you, once again, Jason and team for the gift of love that you deliver and for sharing the news from the tsunami stricken areas. We hear very little of it now, on the news in Australia.
    God bless you!

  14. Posted June 21, 2011 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Beautiful work that you do.

    Thanks for sharing with those less fortunate.

    • Posted June 21, 2011 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Abe. Shanta told me about your WWII photos of Sendai, and that some of them are even in a Sendai museum. Feel free to link to your collections here. I couldn’t find them on your site.

  15. pb
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    thank you, and your wonderful volunters, for making a difference in japan! i appreciate you sharing your trips with us. blessings to you, and your helpers, for all the lives you have positively impacted! i am awed ,and humbled, by the graciousness and strength of the japanese people.

  16. Evilbeard
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 4:39 am | Permalink

    It’s stories like this that allow to me imagine how it might feel to be there helping which is what I wish I could be doing. Thanks.

  17. Khadija Dillman
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 2:48 am | Permalink

    This was lovely to read! Thank you for sharing!

  18. Ucif
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 1:30 am | Permalink

    Dear Japan ,
    I wished you are near to Algeria .. we will help you not only with socks but with every things .. if you need to be warm in cold nights ..sure we will offer you our clothes because happiness make us warm .. Hope every things will be good and well .. for every one ..
    Arigato for been so strong .. keep feeling well

    From People Of Algeria

    • Posted June 21, 2011 at 10:13 am | Permalink

      What a heartfelt message, Ucif. Thank you for sending it. I’ve already passed it around our Sano-based volunteer team. They looked at Algeria on a world map, touched at your desire to help.

  19. Manou
    Posted June 21, 2011 at 1:01 am | Permalink

    Hi Jason,

    Thank you so much for distributing ‘our’ socks and for keeping us posted.
    It fills my heart with hope, knowing that the world is not as ugly as we often
    think it is. I’m thankful that there are still people that want to do good for
    a person in need. You are one of them, as is the ‘little brown boy’ and his
    mom.

    I hope the people of Japan will find a way to deal with their losses and that
    they will be able to rebuild their country soon.

    Thank you to all that sent socks and all that were willing to distribute!

    • Posted June 21, 2011 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      It’s our pleasure, Manou. The “little brown boy” and his mother impressed a lot of people that day. There is more beauty in the world than is reported.

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