By SOPHIE KNIGHT/ Staff Writer
ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi Prefecture–Few people would give up a comfortable life to move to an apocalyptic disaster zone at a time when even residents are leaving in droves. Even fewer would choose to still be there a year on, when most other volunteers have long gone.
Yet it seemed natural to Jamie El-Banna, the leader of “It’s Not Just Mud,” a nonprofit volunteer organization set up last year in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, one of the towns hit hardest by the March 11 tsunami.
“I realized I just didn’t want to be in Osaka anymore,” says the 27-year-old Briton. “And now, it would be very difficult for me to move anywhere else and readjust again.”
INJM has swelled to eight or nine core members, and has hosted more than 500 volunteers since October, when the group moved into a large house. They have been involved in a variety of projects, from the initial cleaning of sludge and running soup kitchens to gutting and rebuilding houses, and even farming seaweed.
El-Banna initially went to volunteer for a week in Matsushima, a group of small islands in Miyagi Prefecture, in May. Upon returning to Osaka, he felt disorientated and dissatisfied. He found it odd that strangers would not greet each other in the street; his friend’s griping about mundane irritations rubbed him the wrong way.
“Looking back, if I had just stuck it out I would have been fine, because everyone feels like that after volunteering. But I acted very quickly on that feeling.”
He quit his job as an English teacher and bought a tent.
Although he had not planned on staying longer than a month, he ended up camping from July until September, during which time he became the natural leader of several other volunteers that joined forces. Via his blog, “It’s Not Just Mud,” which would go on to become the name of the NPO, he encouraged people to come up and lend their time, money and hands.
El-Banna is dismissive of the physical discomforts involved, aware that others’ suffering far outweighed his own–although the lack of a shower was frustrating after a day’s heavy labor that left him caked in mud. He performed his daily ablutions with a hose instead; admittedly, a refreshing option in the stifling summer months.
“I’d wake up at 5:30 a.m. in my tent, so hot I couldn’t breathe,” he says.
“It stank, especially in the heat with decomposing stuff–not just fish–if you stepped on a milk carton it would just explode. There were so many flies it was unreal,” he says.
Ishinomaki was jammed with volunteers a few months after the disaster, but there was more than plenty to do.
The motley crew that coalesced around El-Banna includes Yannick Hiryczuk, a mild-mannered Frenchman who moved here after the disaster out of a love for Japan, despite never having lived here; Robert Mangold, a carpenter who splits his time between Ishinomaki and Kyoto, where he has a wife and son; and Anna Swain, an American psychiatric nurse born and raised in Tokyo. Having lived in the United States for the past 30 years, she is now convinced that she will spend the rest of her days in Japan, after moving here to help in May.
“It was such a nightmare to see my home on fire, you can’t imagine,” she says of the disaster footage she watched from Chicago, where she was living at the time. “I wanted to give something back because Japan gave me so much, and made me who I am.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by many of the foreign volunteers who have given their time, money and careers to help rebuild the disaster area. El-Banna says there was a disproportionate number of foreign volunteers to Japanese, considering they only make up 1-2 percent of Japan’s population.
“I was compelled to come,” says Mangold, when asked why he has spent the best part of a year rebuilding houses and businesses in and around Ishinomaki, despite the strain on both his marriage and finances. He runs his own NPO, International Disaster Relief Organization Japan, or IDRO.
“I can’t explain it; I guess I was designed to do this,” he says. An ex-U.S. Marine and carpenter with a driver’s license, experience volunteering after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake and ample practical know-how, Mangold is an asset to the tiny village communities trying to restore their houses and fishing industry.
Other volunteers are not as qualified–but according to El-Banna, the most important quality is to be able to learn on the job.
“I have no background in construction … and yet I can teach it,” he says. “Yannick wasn’t a carpenter before, but now he’s a master. If you gave him time, he could gut a house and put it back together.”
INJM has gradually gained the trust of the locals, who often ask for help after seeing them work on their neighbors’ houses. El-Banna is known in the neighborhood and says that he counts men in their 60s or 70s as friends–something he wouldn’t have been able to say before.
“I feel more a part of my community here than in Osaka, even though I lived there for three years,” he says.
Although he has now put down his waterproof overalls and steel-toed boots to concentrate on paperwork and administration, El-Banna says that both he and his staff have grown enormously over the past year.
“It’s a very strange skill set that you need to be able to do this stuff, volunteer management,” he says. “It would be a shame and a waste, having built up all this experience to just put it away.”
On any given day, volunteers might be gutting a house and removing sodden wallboard, clearing away debris under the floorboards, constructing new walls or building new structures. Mangold says he is never irritated that teaching people carpentry slows the work down at times, because he feels he is equipping them with life skills they can use again. Muscles are useful, but other tasks require dexterity, or even mental flexibility.
“You have to leave your preconceived notions at home–what you think you know is probably not a lot. If someone says, ‘Please do this,’ then you should do it,” El-Banna says, recalling one elderly woman who asked them to dig up a tree that was still alive, while leaving a dead one next to it.
At first, they protested, telling the woman she had mixed up the live and dead tree. But she insisted, and they eventually obeyed, puzzled. Later they realized that pruning the live tree would be too difficult for the frail, bent-over woman, while the dead one would cause her no trouble–meaning that whoever once looked after her garden was now gone.
“Life is harsh here, it’s not always good,” says El-Banna. “But no one wants to feel like they’re broken. No one wants therapy. This isn’t America or the U.K., no one says they have post-traumatic stress.”
Although most people are not given to dramatic displays of emotion, they are effusive when thanking the volunteers for their work, and often ply them with hot lunches, coffee and cake. The volunteers save them both time and money–gutting a house alone could cost 100,000 yen ($1,227).
However, this produces a conundrum, which El-Banna has mused over on his blog. Leaving some work for tsunami victims to do gives them a sense of purpose and pride, so INJM tries not to do everything for them. The flipside of saving someone money is that a professional is deprived of a wage–something important in an economically depressed region.
As volunteers, they are therefore cautious of doing too much. The problem is that craftsmen such as carpenters and roofers are extremely busy and many could be stuck on the waiting list for years–and INJM are more than willing to fill the gap.
The veterans among them occasionally find it difficult to deal with a constant stream of inexperienced rookies asking the same questions–and occasionally getting a little rowdy in what is essentially their home. Swain, the mother hen of the group, says she sometimes worries about the long-term volunteers burning out, but their leader shows no signs of flagging.
“I’ve heard a lot of sad stuff, but it never got me down,” says El-Banna, who possesses an irrepressible sense of humor and a sharp British wit. “It’s people’s inaction that has. For example, when ‘X NPO’ and ‘Y volunteer group’ are doing basically the same project and would be better off doing it together, but want to do it alone and get the credit. Everyone’s got the same aim; the primary thing is to help people.”
The delineations between INJM and Mangold’s IDRO, for example, are somewhat blurry, although their funding and donations are separate. Both work together in the same areas, and are shifting to supporting and raising small businesses, by giving small no-interest loans, physically clearing premises and giving training.
El-Banna emphasizes that INJM is in it for the long haul, because of the importance of belonging to the community rather than occasionally visiting for a big event.
“Doing something is better than doing nothing, but it’s better to do something well,” he says.
By SOPHIE KNIGHT