From outside, the association’s headquarters in a five or six-story building in the Shinagawa ward of Tokyo seem quite modest. Inside, the atmosphere is still modest but teeming with dynamism. At the door, Kiyoto Onishi welcomes us, saying, “Hoşgeldiniz” (“welcome,” in Turkish). Onishi is one of the AAR’s directors. His first assignment was to Turkey. He was one of the members of the AAR Japan team sent to Turkey after the Marmara earthquake of 1999. He can speak Turkish perfectly, and he has a good knowledge of the country. He is not only well versed in Turkish but also notes he can speak Kırmançi, a Kurdish dialect. The Japanese have long known the importance of learning a foreign language. Knowing local languages is a must for rescue and relief workers working in a foreign country. At AAR Japan, field workers know two or more foreign languages.
Not only AAR Japan workers, but also ordinary Japanese people are considerably informed about Turkey and Turks. Indeed, they see Turkey as a country that must be visited and, if not, which must be studied from afar. As a country that tends to extend a helping hand to the Japanese in their dark days, Turkey has credibility in Japan. So, unsurprisingly it was Japan that first came to the rescue after the earthquake that hit Turkey on Oct. 23, 2011. Departing from Tokyo, AAR Japan’s rescue and relief workers Atsushi Miyazaki, Miyuki Konnai and Ota Yumeka got to Van in 72 hours. They commenced on their relief work on the same day they arrived. They maintained their work unceasingly until the second earthquake on Nov. 9. In this earthquake, the Bayram Hotel, where they stayed, was destroyed, and they themselves became quake victims. Miyazaki lost his life and Konnai was wounded. They had to stop their rescue work. One month later, AAR Japan sent another team that completed their projects in three months and then left Turkey.
Onishi explains that they work on a voluntary basis, providing services in a non-discriminatory manner all around the world. “Forty-five people work at our headquarters in Tokyo. The number of our paid workers is 150 with employees from 12 countries where we have offices and from the regions where our relief and aid projects are under way. In addition, we have hundreds of volunteers. While the AAR Japan’s aid and relief work stands out, it also conducts such projects as AIDS prevention, mine clearing and helping the disabled,” he says.
Let us cooperate for Somalia
Onishi stresses that aid efforts from foreign countries leave indelible marks on societies in hard times. By going to Turkey, AAR Japan has strengthened the bilateral ties between Turkey and Japan. “After the disaster in Sendai, Turks were the first nation who came to the rescue of the Japanese. Rescue teams continue to work uninterruptedly despite the nuclear leakage risk. The Japanese nation will never forget your selfless work here. We, as AAR Japan, were communicating with the aid association Is Anybody There? (Kimse Yok Mu?) in the disaster area. When we went to Van, we contacted them. Like the AAR, Turkish relief and rescue associations do not discriminate based on linguistic, religious or racial differences. Moreover, Turks are very professional about relief and rescue work. We learn new things from you,” he says.
Noting that Turkey has recently conducted major cross-border relief projects, Onishi indicates that they are planning to cooperate with Turkey in providing aid to certain countries. He explains that they want to work with Turkish relief organization particularly in the countries where Turks are active, such as Somalia. “Somalia is one of the countries where Japanese relief workers are nonexistent. Turks have undertaken good work there. We plan to send our aid to Somalia via Turks. If this model works in Somalia, it can be used in other places as well. In this way, we can deploy our aid to the needy easily and effectively. After Miyazaki’s death, Turkey is closer and more special to us,” he says.
Although it has completed its projects in Van, AAR Japan has developed new projects in the name of Miyazaki. Inspired by Miyazaki’s love for children, the association is preparing to provide disabled children with educational materials, toys and clothes in Van. It will donate educational materials to the two schools for the disabled in Van Konnai, known to the Turkish public as the “aid angel,” will act as the coordinator of the second aid program. She was assigned to this task because she can speak Turkish and knows Van. “I am excited to know I will visit Van and Turkey. I have missed the Turkish people very much,” she says.
Konnai fought to stay alive for five-and-a-half hours under the rubble of the Bayram Hotel, and she was wounded when rescued. She was then sent to Japan for treatment. She says she has managed to recover from the trauma. “The Turkish people and the state closely attended to my treatment, and they continued to show close interest in me afterward. This made me forget my bad days. People from Turkey sent me many gifts and emotional letters. They still call me and ask me how I am doing. I am grateful to you all,” she says.