I’ve already mentioned the important role of awareness raising in advancing the situation of refugees in Japan. Like many things in this country, the longer I’m here and the more connections I make, the deeper my understanding grows of the reality of life around me. In this case, encouragingly, I have discovered that there are more initiatives already happening at a grassroots level than I had first thought.
On Saturday, I attended the 2nd Refugee Food Party, an event held by Aichi Association of Refugees (AAR), a newly established not-for-profit organisation which I have recently joined as a volunteer. AAR is an association of refugees, by refugees, for refugees. It was founded by Moses Ssentamu, a Ugandan refugee who fled persecution in his country and arrived in Japan only to endure 22 months detention in Osaka Immigration Centre. Its membership is made up primarily of refugees from a wide range of countries and backgrounds. The aim, to raise public awareness of refugee issues and influence change to the benefit of all refugees and asylum seekers living in Japan.
The evening attracted over 70 guests who came out to enjoy exotic foods cooked by AAR refugees, and find out more about what it’s like to be a refugee in Japan. The success of the night wasn’t just in the high turnout. Nor the fact that many of those attending were young students discovering for the first time that there are refugees in their country. It was the participation and commitment of AAR members that symbolised to me, the most potential for positive change.
Refugees in Japan are systemically disempowered from participating in life in Japan. They have little opportunity to have a voice and certainly aren’t included in policy making. Through the simple act of sharing food, each participant in this event was empowered to make a powerful contribution toward bettering their cause.
Organisations such as AAR, which unite refugees living in Japan and provide tangible opportunities for them to support themselves, have an extremely important role to play in the Japanese context. The Burmese community seem particularly good at this and have formed several volunteer associations who are today active in advocating for and supporting Burmese in Japan – perhaps due to the sheer number of Burmese refugees living here.
Refugee community organisations are widely acknowledged for their potential to provide appropriate settlement support as well as empower refugees through participation in the planning and development of services. In a country where there is a serious absence of adequate supports, this function becomes even more important. In Japan’s case, necessary. AAR fills this gap, albeit on a small scale.
As a voluntary association however, relying solely on public donations to survive is a difficult feat. With increasing pressure on the government to reflect greater cross-sectoral collaboration in settlement support services, we can only hope financial assistance for community organisations will be included as part of the strategy.