Helping people with hardship by providing psycho-social care and promoting their self-reliance: JEN
This month's Close UP features JEN, a foreign-born Japanese nongovernmental organization which was originally founded in 1994 as Japan Emergency NGOs in former Yugoslavia to respond to ongoing ethnic conflicts in the country. Being incorporated in Japan in 2000 with a revised name as it's called today, the organization has been continuing their global activities for those victims of conflicts and disasters, based on the motto "psycho-social care and assistance for self-reliance". For this interview, we talked to Keiko Ikeda of External Relations , and Kenta Ohno, Program Officer for Sri Lanka.
Kenta Ohno and Keiko Ikeda
Can you give us an outline of JEN's overseas activities?

JEN Tokyo headquarters office

Ikeda: We recognize that continuation is a key to a successful global assistance and express it in our brochure as "international cooperation is a job that takes at least ten years." JEN's work begins by providing an emergency assistance and continues on a long-term basis until local people recover their independence and establish more stable lives. We hire local people for each of our projects, who are largely in charge of implementing and managing the project. Our projects are not possible without the efforts of local staff. Currently, we run aid programs in nine countries with about 25 Japanese and over 90 local staff members.

What is the process of JEN's assistance program?
Ikeda: There are three stages in aid activities, which are "emergency," "recovery," and "self-reliance." For each stage, it is important to recognize the needs in the field according to local characteristics and actual damage situation. JEN's aid program begins at the emergency stage with the view to advance to the recovery and self-reliance stages. Our staff members visit the affected area, conduct a public hearing from victims, and start support activities within a week. At the beginning, our activity mainly focuses on distributing material supplies. While providing material aids, we review what may be needed next and make plans for later support.
Material supplies loaded
on the JEN truck/©JEN
Mr. Ohno, please tell us about what JEN actually did at the time of the earthquake in Sri Lanka.

A village damaged by the tsunami/©JEN

Ohno: The Sumatra (Indian Ocean) Earthquake that occurred in December 2004 brought significant damage to the country. JEN decided to send support on the next day of the earthquake. Two staff members flew to Sri Lanka and began emergency support activity in the Hambantota District of the Southern Province, one of the most damaged areas to which it is not easy for assistance efforts to reach. At first, we provided supplies that were necessary for daily survival, such as buckets, lamps, towels, and mops. We also distributed drills to open coconut shells. As palm trees grow commonly in the area, coconuts are an important source of fluid and nutrition for local people.

And how did you assess the needs while providing those material support?
JEN staff member and local women/©JEN

Ohno: The staff visited each household and talked to people while asking them what they needed. In addition to learning victims' material needs, it is our staff's important job to understand victims' feelings behind their words during the conversations and determine other needs of which they might not even be aware. In the case of Sri Lanka, we were acutely aware of the depth of sorrow among survivors who lost their families and friends.
There was a man, for example, who turned to alcohol as an escape from the pain of losing his child in the tsunami and could not get back to work, and his wife gave up on him and left. Like this, there were many victims who lost their sense of meaning in their lives and became desperate after the earthquake, which made us realize the need to provide them with mental health care. However we do not separate mental health care from other aid activities. Instead, we include an element of psycho-social care in every assistance project that we operate.

Can you give us some examples of JEN's assistance projects that incorporated psycho-social care?

At a fishing net making workshop/©JEN

Ohno: For example, we offered workshops to teach how to make fishing nets to fishermen who had lost their fishing equipment in the tsunami. There were some good reasons why we chose to teach skills of making nets instead of simply giving them away. First, simple and steady hand-making work helps people feel more positive. Another reason is that it gives people an opportunity to open up and share their pains with other victims while working together and chatting with them. These are processes that can lead to the healing of their emotional trauma. The alcoholic man whom I just talked about joined the workshop too. His smile came back as he continued working in the group, his wife returned to him, and they eventually started living as a family again. We also arranged local social workers who visited workshops and talked to participants. They provided personal counseling to those who seemed to hold their problems inside.

Do you have any other examples of assistance projects?
Ohno:We also organized the workshop to teach women and low-income people how to make ropes from coconut fibers. These ropes are used to repair the frames of the house, for example. We also taught people how to grow vegetables. They started a small garden on the corner of their home and grew just enough to feed their families, and then gradually expanded it so that they could share crops with neighbors. By working for families and others, people gain ability to support themselves, which leads them to a recovery from a major loss.
Women weaving ropes
from coconut fibers/©JEN
Learning how to make things should also help people gain their independence.

Growing vegetables at a home garden/©JEN

Ohno:Yes. With the vegetables they grow and the seafood they catch, people can feed themselves and sell surplus at the market. Coconut ropes can be made into products such as mats and can be sold as well. While the average monthly income in the community was said to be around 5,000 yen before, it has increased by about 800 yen per month after we introduced these activities. By providing psycho-social care and promoting self-reliance, JEN aims to assist those people in need so that they can restore their lives by themselves. To help victims establish more stable living than before a disaster, it is also vital for us to provide them with opportunities to learn skills of more effective farming and fishing as well as to gain marketing knowledge.

Ohno:Yes. While our support for tsunami victims in the Southern Province has settled, we are currently operating a project to assist in the return of internally displaced people due to a civil conflict that lasted over 20 years.
A fishing boat provided by JEN/©JEN
In what moment do you find your work rewarding?
Ohno:I was inspired by seeing the proud face of the leader of the fishermen's cooperative in the community which we helped resume the local fishing industry. He said that he was not sure if he could start fishing again because he had lost everything when he returned to the community. He is happy now that he can fish again and hopes someday the industry becomes successful and attracts many customers from outside the community to buy their fish.
It is also my great pleasure to see local staff members grow through our assistance program. In Sri Lanka, a local man named Kulasiri has been leading other local employees. Kulasiri has a long history of working for a local NGO and also has been helping JEN projects since we first launched our initiative there. He spends time listening to local people from their viewpoint. Such an attitude as his has been a great influence for young staff members.
We understand that JEN has been operating emergency support in Haiti which was hit by a major earthquake on January 13 this year.

Building a shelter with tin sheets/©JEN

Ikeda: Yes. Three JEN staff members arrived in the affected area on January 19 and began preliminary research. While many victims are currently living in temporary tents built with bed sheets and large fabric pieces in an open area, we need to secure a safe place where victims can protect themselves from rain and wind before the rainy season and possible hurricanes hit the area in April and May. To do so, JEN has been operating an emergency assistance program to provide shelter kits, which include tin sheets, hammers, saws, nails, and gloves. Our activities in Haiti are still at the beginning stage.

Are there any support activities in which we can participate?
Ikeda: If you have books, magazines, CDs, DVDs, or videos that you don't need anymore, you can join our Book Magic campaign by packing them in a box and sending them to us. Donated items will be sold to a secondhand bookstore, and the sales will be used to build schools in Afghanistan and Sudan. We also offer Smile Seeds, a shopping program for which part of your purchase will be used to buy and send vegetable seeds to mothers in Sri Lanka for their home vegetable gardens. We welcome any support for our activities. Please visit our website for more details.
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