sendai, japan | Tears run down Kohata Yuriko’s face as she recalls the events of March 11 last year, when a massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of eastern Japan in the early afternoon.
Shopping for groceries in the small fishing town of Iwanuma, she heard the tsunami sirens. Racing against time, she collected her son and 93-year-old father and fled. As her foot hit the gas pedal, she could hear the horrible noise of the wave as it came crashing through the neighborhood.
Later that day, Yuriko learned that a good friend of her son’s perished in the neighboring house, along with his grandmother, as the tsunami smashed into it. Upon hearing the news, her son started to cry.
“Thank you mom,” he said again and again. “Thank you for coming back for me.”
Through an interpreter, Yuriko says she still cries all the time when she’s alone.
“I’m so stressed and nervous that I can hardly breathe,” she says.
But with the assistance of volunteers and trauma experts from the Israeli nongovernmental organization IsraAID, she is starting to cope with the tragedy.
Yuriko is in a community center in one of the temporary housing sites built to accommodate the tens of thousands of tsunami survivors who lost their homes. Helped by the aid workers she dances, bangs on drums, laughs and smiles — and then, asked to choose from a pile of special cards used as psychotherapeutic tools, she begins to cry.
It is the first time since the disaster that she has cried in front of someone else, and Yuriko is apologetic. She has been unemployed for nearly a year, shares a cramped temporary housing unit with her father, husband and son, and constantly feels like fainting from anxiety.
“It’s OK to cry,” says Judy Spanglet, an Israeli social worker and family therapist who has worked with trauma victims all over the world. “It’s perfectly normal. Let it out. You have been so busy worrying for and taking care of other people that you have forgotten to think of yourself.”
Yuriko smiles and suddenly seems relieved.
“Thank you for listening,” she says, sighing. “Until now I didn’t really have anyone I could speak to.”
While the Japanese government has worked to clean up the material damage from the tsunami and find housing for people, the government has been less determined in providing survivors with psychological support. A number of volunteer groups, most of them Japanese, have worked to fill that hole. IsraAID, a humanitarian organization funded by a number of North American Jewish federations, is one of them. Arriving in Japan shortly after the disaster, IsraAID’s volunteers have supplied medical relief items, provided training to handle post-traumatic stress disorder and organized art, music, movement and drama therapy sessions.
The sessions have been so successful that IsraAID is now planning to operate a training center for at least another year and a half.
The operation is effectively being run by two people: project manager Yotam Polizer, a 28-year-old social worker who spent the last few years volunteering in Nepal; and project coordinator Celia Dunkelman, an energetic Indonesian-Jewish musician who grew up in Japan.
“Israel, sadly, is pretty much a trauma lab,” says Meirav Tal-Margalit, an IsraAID volunteer. “We have extensive experience in this field, and the tools we use here [in Israel] have been proven effective worldwide. We make cultural adaptations, of course, but in the end we are all human and we share the same fears and the same dreams.”