Two strong earthquakes struck the Kumamoto area in Japan on April 14th and April 16th, magnitudes 6.5 and 7.3, respectively. There were 49 deaths, which may not seem a huge number in natural disaster news — in fact, I believe most of people have probably already forgotten about it or never even heard about it in the first place.
But Kumamoto is a rural area, located in the south of Japan, with lots of old houses — which means lots of houses destroyed. On the top of that, landslides isolated many parts of Kumamoto and destroyed even more homes. According to news reports, about 87,000 buildings have been damaged or destroyed. And like in many rural villages around the world, Kumamoto has a large number of elderly locals living alone, with their kids living further away in the cities.
That’s why I decided to join a group of volunteers to help where we could. There were many volunteer groups coming to help, especially during “Golden Week” — several local holidays close in dates that end up as a one-week holiday for many.
There were volunteers from more than 20 countries, from the USA, France, Germany, Canada, Tunisia, Australia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, India, Iran, Brazil, Indonesia, Philippines, the UK, New Zealand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and more.
I joined two groups, Idro Japan and It’s Not Just Mud, and mostly worked on helping locals to get their lives back, by cleaning the areas around their houses or even inside their homes. We helped them put to put shelves back in place and collected what was broken so they could get back to their lives. Oftentimes, the shelving and other things that needed fixing were simply too heavy for an elderly couple to clean up.
In many ways, my work was a simple task, but it was something that can really help the locals to, little by little, re-organise themselves.
Some volunteers who had construction skills helped to fix roofs or even just covered homes with tarps to protect residents on rainy days until a new roof can be built. Others helped to recover valuable mementos from condemned houses.
And it turned out there was a huge coincidence in my being there. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was helping in exactly the area my grandparents were from and had left more than 100 years ago. They immigrated to Brazil from Japan, and I was born and raised in Brazil but moved to Japan 10 years ago. It was my first time in the area and I had no idea where my grandparents had once lived. But after I went to Kumamoto to help, my parents checked their documents and found the name.
I guess I was supposed to be there.