THE BLOG
06/20/2013 06:49 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2013

On the Ground in Tohoku: An Interview With Jamie El-Banna

It's a sunny afternoon in the town of Funakoshi, and Jamie El-Banna is bustling around giving directions to volunteers. Watching him work, you would never suspect that his British-accented English will change in a moment to fluent Japanese. When you find out about the relief work that he does in Tohoku, where the devastating March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami wreaked havoc, you see how his Japanese has come in handy.

Jamie is one of the most active people working to support the residents of Tohoku affected by 3.11. He is one of those who have put their former lives aside to help northern Japan in its time of need. After the waves tore down buildings and carried away cars on that fateful Friday, Jamie left his Osaka job and went to Tohoku. He arrived in May 2011 and ended up moving there in June. Although he'd never done relief work before, he jumped right in and soon created a nonprofit called It's Not Just Mud (INJM), which has set up various relief projects in Miyagi Prefecture. It was through Jamie that I learned about the charm-painting initiative in Funakoshi that I am supporting with my CharmWorks project here in Tokyo.

I interviewed Jamie about his motivation for doing relief work, the current state of things in Tohoku, and his future plans.

Can you give us a quick recap of how INJM started?

I went to Tohoku to volunteer for a week, and then decided to quit work and volunteer for longer. I wanted to share my experiences with my friends and family so I was blogging about them, and it became apparent to me that a lot of people wanted to help but didn't know how to. So I started putting up basic information like how to get to Tohoku and was it safe and the stuff we were doing, and then people started coming and they didn't stop coming.

What are the biggest challenges in relief work?

One of the biggest challenges is getting burned out. You're responsible for a lot of people, both your own volunteers and the people you're helping, and there's always a lot to do, so you just don't stop. Often we're still on the phone at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., sorting stuff out, and really, I've never worked so hard in my life!

What about the challenges of doing relief work as a foreigner?

There are definitely challenges, but there are advantages as well. For example, I don't have to follow the social norms that a Japanese person is expected to follow, so I can be more direct. At the same time, because I've lived in Japan for five years now, I know when I can play the foreigner card and when I can't. Sometimes decisions are made which to me are just ridiculous. But that's Japan and you have to pick your battles; you have to let it go sometimes. And other times you have to fight it.

Do you think people have misconceptions about relief work in Tohoku?

Definitely. Sometimes people want to help but their good will alone is not always enough. For example, one of our volunteers wanted to collect food and blankets and bring them up. And I was like, "Hey, it's been more than two years now. People don't need food and blankets." I think that period is over. And I'm in a position to say, "if you want to do this, that's fine, but maybe you can look for another organization. We're not going to do that."

Another thing is there are volunteers who want to be heroes. They think it's going to be very sexy and glamorous digging in the mud and they say, "I want to dig under a house and find a child," or something like that. But people in Tohoku don't need a hero, they just need a hand, and giving a hand is not sexy at all. Sometimes it can be an old woman whose house is in ruins and she needs someone to help her clean up.

Last year, we were working with a group of 40 Marines from Iwakuni Air Base. The captain told them, "You guys have volunteered to do this, so if I assign you to stand somewhere holding a stick up, are you going to complain?" And that's very much how I am. It's tough, but sometimes I have to explain to people that they just need to do it.

How much does giving money help?

It wasn't until I got involved that I realized how much difference money makes. There are a lot of people who say, "Oh, I don't want to give money. I really just want to do something." Actually, this can be super impractical, like if you were going to fly over from the States for a weekend to work with kids. I mean that's great, but I could tell you two or three organizations who work with kids who could use that $2,000 to pay for two people's living expenses for a month, and those people would be working with kids every day.

How long do you think the relief/recovery process is going to take?

Tohoku is a very big region, the coastline being about the same length as the coast of England, so recovery is not as simple as just rebuilding a town. People are still living in government subsidized housing, and the area won't be back to normal for 10, 20, 30 years? The damage has brought into question for a lot of people whether it's worth living here, because in a lot of places you'd have to be starting towns from zero.

How long do you personally plan to do this?

As long as I can be useful. There's a limit to how much I can do, being part of a small organization, but sometimes that's helpful because we can motivate more quickly than a large organization, and we can fill the smaller needs. I can't drive a bulldozer or a crane or anything like that, but we can do smaller jobs, work with individuals. So I think I'm going to be sticking around for a while.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I want to say thank you to everyone who has supported us. It's humbling to see how people have pulled together to make It's Not Just Mud what it is. Without them, it wouldn't be a shadow of what it is today. These are real people who just say, "Yeah, let's do it." And I really love that.

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