Japan: Safe Home for Disasters’ Children

By David Tereshchuk *

April 2, 2013—Among the many ways that UMCOR (the United Methodist Committee on Relief) has been helping the Japanese people recover from their 2011 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis, few can be quite as heartening as its support for the Horikawa Aiseien Children’s Home.

Horikawa Aiseien is a 67-year-old facility for vulnerable children located in the southern part of Fukushima Prefecture. In the initial earthquake two years ago, none of its buildings collapsed fully, but the tremor and the many aftershocks that followed did inflict serious damage to the building’s fabric. They dramatically heightened anxiety about its strength to survive any serious seismic events in the future.

In addition, radioactive contamination from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station (less than 50 miles away), which underwent meltdown and explosions in the earthquake’s ensuing tsunami, has also badly affected the children’s home. Levels of radiation in the atmosphere are still being registered at rates significantly higher than the nationally approved standard.

Such conditions made it essential for Horikawa Aiseien’s housing units to be upgraded in order to ensure much safer living conditions for all the home’s residents, who range in age from 3 to 18 years old.

The triple disaster could scarcely have wreaked harm on a more vulnerable segment of the population than Horikawa Aiseien. The home has traditionally received children at risk throughout Fukushima Prefecture, via the prefecture’s child-guidance centers, and the majority have been survivors of abuse.

When the triple disaster struck, if any Fukushima child was orphaned, it became customary for the child to be taken in by relatives. However, social workers have had to be on the alert for child abuse, which can occur as families suffer prolonged periods living in emergency evacuation centers, or undergo—as many do—severe financial difficulty and other forms of stress.

The home’s director, Nobuhiko Ito, says, “There is the danger that children will become victims within households, as they are put under immense pressure because of instability and uncertainty about the future. If this happens, it will likely lead to a higher number of children needing facilities like ours.”

For such children, Horikawa Aiseien offers a chance to restore their trust in adults and rebuild their psychological and emotional stability in a home-like setting—but it naturally needs to be as safe an environment as it can possibly be.

UMCOR’s grant of $50,000 has been helping to fully retrofit the home’s buildings, conforming to nationally prescribed earthquake-resistance standards and providing insulation against radioactive contamination.

Besides improved housing, parental support programs are also receiving help, and these services are being made available to the Fukushima community as a whole. UMCOR is also supporting the promotion of family reunions whenever possible, emergency family assistance, and enhanced skills-development among the home’s own workers.

The generosity of United Methodists and others of goodwill has been greatly welcomed by Director Ito, who says: “For our children, knowing that there are many people out there who warmly watch over and support them has become a great source of encouragement in their daily lives. It allows them to live with smiles on their faces.”