Saturday, November 5, 2011

It's Not Just Mud

INJM Working on a landslide-relief project in Onagawa town.

This is one of the groups in Tohoku that has played gracious host to Foreign Volunteers Japan members on several visits up to Tohoku so far. The group was originally formed in the famous "Tent City" in Ishinomaki, that ran from mid-March until September 30th, on the grounds of Senshu University in Ishinomaki.

The founder of the group, Jamie El-Banna, is known as the go-to-guy for information regarding local conditions in Ishinomaki. He has worked closely on projects with the British Chamber of Commerce, Ishinomaki 2.0, Samaritan's Purse, and several others. 

Jamie (far right) welcoming a new group of volunteers to INJM HQ.
While working in Osaka, Jamie travelled out to Higashi-Matsushima on a volunteer trip in mid May. Although that was well after the initial rescue phase of the tsunami relief efforts, the level of devastation and unmet needs of the refugees that Jamie encountered, made him realize that there was still tremendous amounts of work that had to be done for the relief efforts. 

After returning to Osaka, he didn't feel right settling back down in the city. There was still so much to be done in the tsunami-affected regions. After a few weeks, he made the dramatic decision to quit his job, sublet his apartment, and moved out to Tent City in Ishinomaki. That was where the core organizational group behind the It's Not Just Mud project was formed.  

Long-term volunteer Manish already muddy by 10:00am.
The name for the project of course, comes from the initial challenge facing anyone getting involved with post-tsunami clean-up and relief work. Not only did the devastating force of the tsunami destroy much of what it came into contact with, it also covered nearly everything else with a thick layer of toxic, bacteria-breeding, noxious and thick mud. 

Much of the clean-up efforts have been focused on removing this mud… but, as Jamie puts it "it’s not just mud. It's about the people who are living through this terrible tragedy, and helping them get back to a normal life." 

Although the early days of the project revolved around clean-up projects coordinated through local volunteer centers, INJM has since expanded their projects. 

As of the end of September, the It's Not Just Mud project has now moved into two neighboring houses in the Watanoha district of Ishinomaki. Impressed by their volunteer activities, the houses were actually offered to the group by refugees who had been able to move to another district of the city.

Half-restored INJM house in late-September
 When the group first moved in, the first floor of both houses were hollowed-out. The walls and floors had been badly damaged, festering sludge under the floors, and rotting insulation in the walls all needed to be extracted, and shattered windows needed to be boarded up. 

Over the last two months, Jamie's group has worked on-top of their other volunteer projects to restore the house to working shape. By the end of September they had floorboards and walls extracted, and removed the tsunami sludge. Soon after that they put up new walls and floorboards (generously provided by Samaritan's Purse), as well as restoring the water and gas. By early October they replaced the electrical sockets, and soon will have a water heater installed. Even without the water heater, Jamie explained that volunteers are able to visit the local temporary hot-springs facilities for a hot bath.  
Knocking down a wall on a recent project.
As for the specific projects of INJM, here are their current four main aims:
  1. Encouraging volunteering – They do this by offering assistance in coming in terms of advice and logistical support.
  2. Salvaging homes in the Ishinomaki area – In many cases, only the ground floor of the home was flooded, and in some cases soaked in sea water for up to three days. Months later, the building materials are waterlogged and rotting, and must be removed. This means removing the walls, ceiling, insulation, and flooring, then the 3-5cm layer of mud that is under everything.
    Normally, this kind of work would be undertaken by a professional builder, but because of the enormous number of damaged homes, the waiting list to get a professional builder is extremely long, and the process is costly. They work with experienced volunteers (several of which are trained builders) to perform this manual labor and gut houses, taking them one step closer to being liveable.
    For some families, they have been living on the second floor of their damaged home for months, passing through the rotting and hazardous first floor daily. Making it safe and clean is a significant improvement for these people.
  3. Salvaging homes further afield – INJM work with both local groups in central Ishinomaki and in more remote areas of the region. They have identified the need for this kind of service in towns across the Oshika Peninsula.
  4. Delivering fresh fruit and vegetables to areas that don’t have access to such things. Now that the Winter is coming, INJM has begun focusing on the distribution of Winter coats, kerosene heaters, and running a 'kerosene pickup and delivery service' for residents of refugee shelters and temporary housing units without access to a car.

INJM volunteers helping a local sake-shop owner restore her business. 

A popular aspect of the group, is the members' great sense of humor, and the openness to new volunteers. The INJM page documents various F.U.Es. Those are the "Frequently Used Excuses" that unfortunately have been preventing many potential volunteers from making the short trip to Ishinomaki. Here are the official F.U.E from the INJM webpage: 

F.U.E – Frequently Used Excuses

Below you can find some of the most common reasons people use to not come. They all have a valid basis, but after reading below, I think you’ll find that in actual fact, there’s nothing to worry about!

I’m worried I’ll find something really scary in the rubble!!
 The Self Defense Force has cleared most of the large debris in Ishinomaki. Most of the work we do is clearing mud that is 2-4cm thick from homes and properties. You might find something that is emotionally troubling, for example people’s personal belongings or photographs, but it is unlikely you’ll find something truly troubling with the kind of work we do.

I don’t have any experience!!
 Everyone has to start somewhere! You will always have someone experienced working with you who can answer your questions and tell you what to do and how to do it. It’s not too difficult, and after a day you’ll quickly learn what needs to be done, and will be able to teach new volunteers yourself.

I’m not very strong!!
 You won’t be asked to do anything you can’t do. Some jobs do require strength, but if you aren’t cut out for that, there are plenty of things you can do. Plenty of women and older people work with us!

I don’t have any equipment!!
 All the professional building equipment will be provided. Please look here for what you should bring!

I can’t book a bus, I don’t read Kanji!!
 Contact us with your dates and we can arrange someone to do that for you.

I don’t speak Japanese/English!!
 That’s OK! On the work site we will always make sure you understand what you’re supposed to be doing, and there are plenty of people around who can help out if you don’t understand. 

If you would be interested in joining the INJM project, please feel free to contact Jamie directly at: jamie[AT]itsnotjustmud[DOT]com


Or visit their Facebook fan group to ask for more information: 

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