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Refugee Empowerment Network (REN) ~Supporting Refugees Domestically and Overseas Through Bead Accessories~

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REN Chairperson Ms. Hisako Ishitani.

June’s Close Up introduces the Refugee Empowerment Network (REN), a non-profit organization that works both to support refugees here in Japan and also in Africa. Through bringing together as a network recognized refugees, those in the process of applying for refugee status, asylum seekers, the repatriated, individuals who have subsequently settled in third countries, others who have found themselves internally displaced and the supporters of people who may be thus categorized in such statuses, while it endeavors to respect the dignity of individuals as human beings, REN gives support both in economic terms and in terms of such people being able to achieve their social independence. On this occasion, we spoke to the group’s Chairperson Ms. Hisako Ishitani, both about the founding of REN and the nature of its activities. We also discussed those issues that directly confront refugees here in Japan.

Q. Please tell me what led to the establishment of REN.

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“Mama Kakuma,” a collection of poetry.
This volume contains 47 poems from refugees, with the prose being written from the perspective of each of the authors being a distinct individual.
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A. What initially led me to support refugees was a visit that my son made to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya soon after his university graduation. On visiting that camp, he was fortunate enough to encounter a refugee poetry group, and he became deeply impressed by the tales that they told. Indeed, he ended up discussing with them the possibility of introducing their poetry to a Japanese audience. I translated those poems that he selected in his role as editor, and a volume was subsequently published here in Japan in 2002 under the title “Mama Kakuma.” Through my involvement in the poetry project, concerning those refugees who were leading very difficult lives in the Kakuma Refugee Camp due to various reasons, it dawned on me that I shared with them many of the sentiments they had expressed. As such, I began to wonder what I could do to assist them. At the time, to those people in the Kakuma Refugee Camp who had written the poetry, as an initial step a decision was made to donate the proceeds of the book sales. It was then decided that we would support the refugees by translating articles from the Kakuma News Bulletin (KANEBU) which was then being published in the camp. Financial assistance was also offered. From 2003 until 2007, our group conducted its activities as the “KANEBU Support Group.” However, in that the recipients of our support expanded in scope over time, in 2009 we became a recognized non-profit organization under the name of the “Refugee Empowerment Network” (REN).

Q. Please tell me about the main activities that you currently undertake.

A. We have refugees here in Japan work together with their Japanese supporters in the creation and sale of bead accessories. In that the proceeds of this project are used to support refugees both here in Japan and over in Africa, you could say that such activities are symbolic of REN. Speaking personally, creating bead accessories was a hobby that I originally enjoyed, and when I started out I used to create accessories along with my friends and then have people I know buy them. However, as a hobbyist I was so successful that I could not keep up with demand, and what grew out of this was the approach we have adopted of working together with refugees who live here in Japan. Every other week we hold a workshop where people are taught how to make these accessories and we then pass on to them the materials they require. Commencing with those who help with this work, we distribute the proceeds of sales so as to support the livelihoods of refugees living in Japan. The proceeds are also used to fund scholarships for refugees both here in Japan and in Kenya, and this has become one way in which the refugees here in Japan have been able to support others in a similar plight overseas. Furthermore, we also undertake the translation of Kakuma News Reflector (KANERE), which is a web journal started in place of the KANEBU Magazine of the Kakuma Camp. Additionally, we conduct Japanese language courses for the benefit of refugees, etc.

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Some of the bead accessories created by refugees here in Japan along with their Japanese supporters.
These accessories are also sold at bazaars and other events.
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Q. So what about those refugees who participate in the creation of bead accessories? What sort of people are they?

A. They come from a variety of countries. Some have already been recognized as refugees, while others are still in the process of applying for such status. You might also assume that only women would be involved in such activities, however, currently more than half those participating are male. Indeed, we have even had some African gentlemen with rather large hands get involved in the making of these accessories. Moreover, although it is not necessarily the case that everybody involved is somebody who enjoys doing detailed work with their hands, all seem to try their hardest. I believe this is because there is a strong desire among the refugees to both contribute even just a little to their own livelihoods and to work towards their own social independence. Among the refugees involved, some have also developed advanced skills through the beads project. One has gone on to become an instructor themselves and that person now holds classes to teach Japanese people the arts of bead-braiding and bead-weaving. At REN, in that this particular refugee teaches Japanese people such skills, we view the situation as one means by which both refugees and Japanese might work together in sharing their cultures, their knowledge and their strengths. This is a state of affairs that we would like to develop further.

Q. What sort of problems confront refugees in Japan?

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A REN leaflet and a Beads Project flyer.

A. Although many people arrive in Japan seeking refuge, the reality is that only a very small number are subsequently recognized as refugees. Moreover, it takes a lot of time to be recognized as a refugee, and this leaves many people in a state of limbo. Accordingly, they are forced to eke out an existence in Japan while being subject to the ongoing threat of detention or forceful removal from the country. As to why so few people are recognized as refugees by the Japanese government, one factor is that the applications process is managed by the Immigration Bureau. This is the institution charged with controlling the movement of people in and out of Japan. Thus, part of its core job is to discover people who are in the country illegally and to remove them. Accordingly, in handling the refugee screening process, it cannot be helped that there is a bias towards “exclusion.” Moreover, in that there is now a system in place that allows for work visas to be issued six months after the filing of a refugee status application, some people have come to Japan in order to work and they have even filed applications to muddy the waters of their own background. Accordingly, there are concerns that people who genuinely require asylum will have their applications turned down. In order to improve such circumstances, I feel it is necessary that a specialized institution be established that reviews refugee applications from a humanitarian perspective. Under the current regime whereby applications are turned down simply because some of the circumstances under which people have arrived in Japan remain unclear, a great burden is placed on the shoulders of refugees. In cooperation with overseas institutions, I feel an organization should be created that can undertake the application review process while carrying out specialized research.
(*In 2015, there were 7,586 applications for refugee status, of which only 27 cases were approved.)

Q. Here in Japan, it seems that there are a lot of people who view the refugee issue as “nothing to do” with them.

A. Among the Japanese, I feel there is a deficiency in terms of their willingness to accept people who are different from themselves. Indeed, it seems that there are many people with a rather narrow outlook, being satisfied as long as they have themselves and their family, or Japan on which to rely. Moreover, there are also people who cannot distinguish between the refugee issue and the issue of immigration, they have the misimpression that “accepting refugees will result in Japanese people losing their jobs.” It needs to be pointed out that immigrants to Japan choose to come to this country. On the other hand, in the case of many refugees, they were simply fortunate enough to obtain a visa and they subsequently arrived in Japan because they had no other choice. The refugee question is not one of people winning or losing something, rather it is an issue that needs to be viewed from the humanitarian perspective. If there is an unwillingness to accept as refugees those individuals who are no longer able to live in their native country due to various reasons, then it doesn’t really matter how much money Japan is willing to throw at the problem. If the nation doesn’t step up and play its role in accepting such people, I fear that Japan will be viewed as rather self-indulgent.

Q. Please tell me what you have felt as a result of your work in supporting refugees.

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A. Among the refugees who come to Japan, a large number are highly knowledgeable, intelligent and in possession of advanced skills. Even if you look at those who participate in our beads project at REN, among our staff it is often said that some could make a great contribution to this country if formally recognized as refugees. However, because such people continue to not be given opportunities to fully exert their skills, it is very unfortunate in that they are forced by circumstances to eke out an existence. As a nation, I would like these refugees to be accepted and to be given every opportunity to be active across a variety of domains. If that happens, then I believe that the attitude of Japanese society towards refugees will change.