Friday, July 5, 2013

Where the Flowers Grow

I lean down to pick up a piece of driftwood and a plastic figurine; immediately separating the two pieces in my hands, the combustible wood to the left, the plastic in the right.  As I stand back up and scan the rocks for more debris, I can feel a bead of sweat trickle down the back of my neck from the fire behind me.  It was already a hot and humid day but the fire seemed to absorb whatever cool breeze the ocean offered.  I hear the leader of our group yell "yasumi!" (break time!) and I throw the figurine into a pile of plastic, toss the wood into the fire, and walk closer to the ocean.  I stand behind the jagged dark line the waves make as they crash on the shore.  The tide is coming in and I feel the spray of the ocean on my face as the waves reach my toes.  I close my eyes and hear a pound and then a rattling, almost sucking sound, as the water drains away from the rocks.  My eyes are still closed but I hear a women speak next to me, "I can no longer listen to the ocean, it scares me.  Can you hear it as it beats our shore?"

JEN, the non-profit Jamie and I intern at, has field offices in eight countries, including Japan.  The Japan field office is located in Ishinomaki, one of the hardest hit cities by the 2011 Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and the resulting tsunami.  Over 80% of the houses along the coast of Ishinomaki were leveled and 45% of the city was flooded.  The tragedy was further intensified when Okawa Elementary school was completely destroyed and seventy of the hundred and eight students and nine of the thirteen teachers and staff were killed when they attempted to cross a nearby river bridge to reach higher ground, when the tsunami hit the bridge.

This past week Jamie and I traveled to Ishinomaki to volunteer on a beach clean up crew on Ajishima Island, an hour ferry ride out from Ishinomaki.  Then, later in the week, we returned to Ishinomaki to take care of some newly planted flowers.  As we explored the city this past week, the destruction from two years ago was still evident.  As we passed by open lots of land full of weeds, our friends from JEN would explain that these used to be neighborhoods until the tsunami swept them away.  We could still see debris covering some of these lots with half-demolished houses bordering their outskirts.  While a lot of rebuilding has taken place over the last two years and most of the clean-up work is done, it has taken and will take much longer for the psyches of those affected, to heal.  One effort JEN has initiated to reclaim the land devastated by the tsunami is to plant flowers and create parks.  It is their hope that as the scarred land heals and the flowers bloom, the people can see the beauty around them and begin to heal too.  This has not been without difficulty though.  The soil has become salty from the sea and special efforts have had to be taken to identify plants and flowers that thrive in salty conditions.  However, as evident from the picture below, the flowers have bloomed and the land is beginning to recover and, with time, hopefully, the people will too.  

Photo courtesy of JEN

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