Bless all the dear children…

Speed-writing amid the madness of Christmas Eve – so this may be a stream of semi-consciousness! December has been hectic and the last few days were simply too short. Meeting deadlines and getting things sorted for the festive season… This year, though, it’s a different type of Christmas. Perhaps 2015 has forced us, across Europe, to wake up to the reality of our unjust world. To make us respond to those seeking safety and shelter. How have we reacted? Have we said ‘welcome’ or ‘there’s no room’? It’s a Christmassy kind of question.

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At a lovely ‘Santa Lucia’ feast-day event organised by a dear friend in aid of my appeal.

Anyhow, to answer it in a personal way, I’m heading to Croatia on Monday (28th December) to volunteer for two weeks with the ‘Dobrodošli’/‘Welcome’ Initiative, which has been offering tremendous support to refugees there. And, thanks to incredible help from many people in Ireland and beyond, I’m delighted to say that I’ve far surpassed my fundraising target of €2,000! This money will go to Croatia ADRA, which is bringing essential aid to refugees in the main camp in Slavonski Brod. Please check out this link for details of my appeal: https://www.gofundme.com/BalkansRefugees

Yesterday, I read about a Syrian woman who had just given birth to a baby in Slavonski Brod, shortly after she and her family arrived in the camp. Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, her story has huge human resonance. But she’s not the only mother to have made this trek, not the only pregnant woman to have braved this difficult journey. Her children are lucky to have survived the merciless seas which claimed more young lives this week. The least I can do is spend a little time lending a hand of solidarity with people like her.

In the meantime, I want to make tomorrow special for my kids. I’d also like to wish you all ‘Sretan Božić i Sretna Nova Godina!’ with an image that my eldest daughter created…

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In the bleak midwinter

So this is Christmas… and my penultimate offering of 2014. The ‘elves’ in my house are planning to hijack this blog for a final yuletide message. Though, already, the making of their surprise post has sparked rebellions in elfdom. As the saying goes, ‘girls wreck your head’.

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Sometimes, so do places. Like my old ljubav, Bosnia. It’s been an eventful year there. The country has featured in international news for a range of reasons. Protests in February. Devastating floods in May. The commemoration of the assassination in Sarajevo which triggered World War I. Euphoria as the Bosnian football team played in its first World Cup. The hopes and hype of Rio gleamed… but soon faded. Reality gushed in again.

Elections in October saw the constellations of power in Bosnia and Herzegovina shift slightly, although nationalist parties remain dominant. Just another case of plus ça change? Or could 2015 auger progress for a country hamstrung by the legacy of conflict? An initiative seeking to kick-start Bosnia’s flagging EU accession process has recently been proposed by Britain and Germany. Understandably, after years of fruitless negotiations, scepticism prevails as to whether this scheme can prompt the reforms required for EU membership. However, any renewal of interest which might lead to a more effective European approach towards Bosnia is welcome.

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Bosnia’s present stagnation benefits no-one but its ruling elites. Instead of trying to build a functional state, they thrive on generating insecurity. Two decades since the end of the war, many of the divisions it caused are as raw today as they were in 1995. But despite undeniable differences, there’s much scope for unity. Demonstrations and plenums in the spring highlighted how most people in Bosnia face the same socio-economic problems – unemployment, poverty, limited prospects. The massive voluntary response which brought relief to those affected by flooding further proved that citizens from all ‘ethnic’ backgrounds can co-operate.

From a personal perspective, I’m glad my family and I were able to fundraise in our local area for the Irish Red Cross Balkans Floods Appeal. In Bosnia during the summer, we witnessed some of the damage left in the wake of the deluge and spoke to people involved in dealing with its aftermath. It was clear that the country needs ongoing support to recover from this disaster. We also went to Srebrenica and were struck not only by the scale of the atrocity that occurred there but by the questions it still poses… How? Why? Is it possible that healing can follow genocide? Such queries hovered in the sultry air above a cemetery which is now lodged in our human conscience.

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No matter how many times you visit Bosnia, it’s somewhere that always astounds… and disturbs. This year more than ever, it’s plagued me with a yearning to forge connections that extend beyond family trips – a desire to do something constructive. I’ve been investigating a few potential avenues in this regard. So far without success… lack of finances being a major drawback. But I’ll continue to explore these ideas. Perhaps I should ask Santa to send me a wealthy philanthropist! Along with a helping of luck, a marriage counsellor and a good night’s sleep. Though, if these demands defy even the magic of Mr. Claus, a book token will do fine.

Well, now, I ought to get my Meryl Streep skates on and rustle up an Oscar-winning Christmas!  Writing often seems pointless, yet I’m not sorry to have ‘wasted’ time, amid the commercial frenzy of December, on this series of short pieces (see links below). They’re chronologically arranged, based on the events to which they relate, but their topics also reflect the symbolism of the Advent wreath.

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Entwined in pine, the first two purple candles signify hope and peace. Hopefully, 2015 will bring both to Syria. And, although we can’t stop the war, we can still show solidarity with the Syrian people by donating to humanitarian organisations which work with them and by raising awareness of their plight. Meanwhile, here in Ireland, it feels like we’re on the cusp of a rising thought wave. We’ve got a rare chance to challenge established currents. Are we ready to take risks to create an equal, harmonious society? Or will we just go with the flow and put up with the status quo?

Globally, 2014 was grim. Fighting in Ukraine, attacks on Gaza, institutional racism in the USA, floods in the Balkans, worrying predictions about climate change – there was little cause for rejoicing. Even on an individual level, I must admit, it was a year I’d rather forget. But when all seems dark, brief instants of respite become more meaningful. A pink birthday candle. Or this, the last of the purple ones… The candle that stands for love.

Please check out previous posts in this series at:

An Advent miscellany: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-ma

Happy Xmas (war isn’t over): http://wp.me/p3NO7M-md

We’re dreaming of a better Ireland: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-mf

On a twelfth birthday at Christmas: http://wp.me/p3NO7M-mh

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Food, fun and faith for funds

Climbing hills, dressing up as Celts, weaving trendy accessories… Over recent weeks, my family and I have learned a few new skills – all for the sake of the Irish Red Cross ‘Balkans Floods Appeal’. Internationally, the extreme flooding witnessed in May in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia is no longer deemed ‘newsworthy’. But for the many thousands of people now struggling with its aftermath, the consequences of the disaster are very real.

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The world’s cameras have zoomed out. They’ve taken their shots of the torrents and their aerial pictures of settlements submerged in muddy water. There are horrors breaking elsewhere or popular distractions like sports and show-biz to be filmed. As reports wane, assistance often follows a similar pattern – any immediate surge of interest tends to fall off fast. In our case, though, we simply couldn’t forget. My husband’s uncle and aunt live in Bijeljina and they were personally affected by the floods. This brought the crisis home to us. We had to try to help in whatever way we could… hence our series of events for the Balkans Floods Appeal.

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Our efforts were small-scale. They began with our daughters’ bracelet-making scheme around our neighbourhood and our trek over a windswept Irish mountain (see previous post). The success of these early endeavours, which raised almost €600, inspired us to do more. Phone calls and email enquiries ensued. Plans were hatched in between late night World Cup matches. Football became addictive viewing but, far from being a diversion, it strengthened our commitment to our fundraising campaign. Supporting Bosnia can’t just be about yelling at a screen beaming 90 minutes of excitement from South America. Nevertheless, like millions in the worldwide Bosnian fan club, we celebrated the team and lamented their premature exit from the tournament.

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Bosnia’s sojourn in Brazil may have been brief but, in our house, it was memorable. The children took huge pride in their father’s country, especially as their mother’s hadn’t qualified.  And they loved the pre-match parties featuring blue and yellow ice-cream sodas, Irish attempts at ćevapi, and Fox’s biscuits on which I’d inscribed best wishes to the ‘Dragons’. Few of the neighbours could’ve missed the giant flag fluttering from one of our upstairs windows as we put Bosnia and Herzegovina on the local radar. Through football banter, we also talked about current issues in the Balkans and let people know about our fundraising.

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We continued on 26 June – the day after Bosnia’s victory against Iran – with a coffee morning at my husband’s workplace in Dublin. His employer, the Irish Medicines Board (IMB), has a welcoming attitude towards charities and many of his colleagues offered to bake for us. This was just as well because domestic science lies beyond my comfort zone. As a person who only willingly cooks for ‘cultural occasions’, such as the World Cup and major feast days, I must admit that the prospect of producing fare fit for public consumption was pretty daunting.

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I opted for my tried and tested ‘hurmašice light’ – a reduced-sugar version of the traditional Bosnian recipe. Luckily, my limited repertoire also extends to shortbread cookies. So I rustled up three dozen of these and decorated them with the flags of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. (Chef’s tip: ready-to-roll icing, dyed with tinted food gel, works a dream.) My ‘Balkan’ treats looked cute but the staff of the IMB proved true culinary geniuses. Their scrumptious chocolate cakes, lemon drizzle slices, profiteroles, caramel squares and other delicious goodies formed a mouth-watering array. In addition, they were unbelievably generous – donations received at the coffee morning amounted to €820.

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Two days later, we were fundraising again. Though, this time, it was much closer to home. I’d spoken to one of the priests of the small, rural parish in which we live – Blackrock and Haggardstown, Co. Louth – about our ideas to help flood victims in the Balkans. He gave us great encouragement and suggested we hold a church-gate collection in aid of the Irish Red Cross appeal. Having obtained the required Garda permit, we were able to proceed with this on the last weekend in June. We started at the evening mass on Saturday 28 – a date of particular historical significance, exactly one hundred years after the heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was killed in Sarajevo. Due to this anniversary, Bosnia got a quick mention in the media (including a few moments of TV news in Ireland) as the centennial commemorations of World War I began. But while academics and journalists debated the region’s past, our focus was on its present problems.

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By coincidence, June 28 was also the first day of Ramadan. My husband – probably the only Bosnian Muslim to have manned a charity bucket outside an Irish Catholic church – was hungry as sunset approached. Both of us were heartened, though, by the response to our collection… and ever-so-slightly nervous about its next stage. Prayers were said that the fine weather we’d been blessed with would last. Fortunately, it appeared that someone ‘up above’ was listening because Sunday dawned with divine radiance. This was a relief since we had four services to cover in the two churches of the parish. At each, people showed incredible goodwill and altogether we collected €610. The inter-faith dimension of the event was also important. It touched on what should be at the core of all religions – concern for humankind and generosity of spirit. These are values rarely emphasised in a world that seems to thrive on division.

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Our final event took place in the Marshes Shopping Centre in the nearby town of Dundalk on Saturday 5 July. The administrator of the centre kindly provided us with this opportunity to collect on the premises. And I became ‘well-known to the Gardaí’ – not for involvement in serious crime but for seeking police permission for a second collection in rapid succession. We made an attractive display with information about the floods and their impact on the Balkans. But to really grab the attention of passing shoppers our daughters wove more ‘loom’ bracelets. This kept them occupied (and out of trouble) through the first week of their summer holidays. Industrial quantities of tiny bright hoops were turned into awesome wrist-bands. Glitter, glow-in-the-dark and metallic designs were available. Colour combinations to represent Ireland, countries of the Balkans and surviving World Cup nations, catered to the tastes of both boys and girls.

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The shopping centre was rather quiet on Saturday morning and, yes, that freaked me out a bit. However, I needn’t have worried as it got much busier in the afternoon and our stall, which was in a prime location, drew many visitors. Children coaxed their parents to stop by and were thrilled at our range of bracelets. We gave these as ‘thank you’ gifts for donations. Teenagers made their own contributions and adults took considerable interest too – from our local senator, Mary Moran, who was very supportive, to a young couple from Croatia who’d recently come to live in Dundalk. It was lovely to talk to people, not just about the Balkans but about their experience of fundraising for various causes. By the end of the day we’d collected another €340 for the Irish Red Cross. Our daughters were especially pleased that they, and their handiwork, had played a crucial role in this achievement.

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This collection brought the total raised from our action for the Balkans Floods Appeal to €2,360. It multiplied by almost forty times the €60 we’d already donated online. In five weeks, with a little effort and a lot of enjoyment, we’d increased far beyond our expectations the help we could offer as a family. We’re extremely grateful to all who contributed. They’ve demonstrated that Ireland’s capacity for altruism hasn’t been crushed, that humanity remains a powerful force. From a practical standpoint, we’ve also seen that by organising simple, replicable activities it’s possible to maximise the response to any appeal.

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Regarding the floods in the Balkans, we can only hope that external aid will flow to the affected areas and that this will target those who are most vulnerable. Meanwhile, we’re preparing to go to Bosnia next week. We’re not sure if we’ll be able to travel to the flood-hit regions – logistics, children and time constraints will determine this – but we’ll try. Even if we can’t, we’ll bring with us a positive message from Ireland. We’re glad to say that some people here are aware of current challenges in Bosnia. Better still, they’ve shown that they care.

Please continue to support the Irish Red Cross Balkans Floods Appeal: http://www.redcross.ie/news/appeals/balkan-floods-appeal/

Here’s a summary of our fundraising:

31 May – children’s sale of bracelets, Blackrock, Co. Louth: €125

7-8 June – Táin March, Dundalk and Carlingford, Co. Louth: €465

26 June – coffee morning in the Irish Medicines Board, Dublin: €820

28-29 June – church-gate collection in Blackrock and Haggardstown, Co. Louth: €610

5 July – display stand in the Marshes Shopping Centre, Dundalk: €340

TOTAL  raised for Irish Red Cross Balkans Floods Appeal: €2,360

Thank you/hvala to everyone who helped!

Read more about our fundraising in my previous post: 
 

Ain’t no mountain high enough… for the Balkans

The rivers are receding. Their overflow is slowly seeping away. The extent of the damage caused by last month’s floods in the Balkans is now emerging. And the repair bill is expected to run to billions of euro. Homes and communities have been ruined. Large areas must be decontaminated, infrastructure requires reconstruction. The devastated regions of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia will need support for many years to come. The solidarity shown by people throughout the Balkans in helping those affected by this catastrophe has been inspiring. But, given the scale of the crisis, international aid is also essential.

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In Ireland, we watched news of the flooding and heard about it from my husband’s elderly relatives who live in one of the worst-hit parts of Bosnia. Our first reaction was horror. Our second was a question – what could we do? As a start, we made an online donation to the ‘Balkans Floods Appeal’ launched by the Irish Red Cross. Then we wondered how we could fundraise for this appeal in our locality. We contacted the Irish Red Cross and, with their approval, began a ‘wee’ campaign in County Louth.

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Our two older daughters led the way. The eleven-year-old, who’s nifty in the art and craft department and has a keen eye for all the latest crazes, made several dozen ‘loom’ bracelets. Apparently these rubber band creations, woven in a range of neon-bright shades, are this summer’s coolest fashion accessory. Along with her big sister, she sold her produce around our housing estate on Saturday 31 May. After four hours, they returned without any bracelets. Instead, they had €125 for the Balkans Floods Appeal!

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Meanwhile, a few days earlier, we’d read an article with a Bosnian connection in the Irish Times. It focused on a newly published biography, The Trigger, which looks at the life and legacy of Gavrilo Princip. The book’s author, Tim Butcher, discussed aspects of Balkan history from 1914 to the present. He also spoke about the war in Bosnia in the 1990s and its consequences. In response to the issues he’d mentioned, we wrote a letter which appeared in the Irish Times on Monday 2 June. It was another opportunity to highlight the floods in the Balkans, which already seemed forgotten by the global media. We pointed out how people in Ireland can help, hoping that our short epistle might reach readers with much fuller purses than ours.

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Writing and talking are certainly useful means of spreading the word. But ‘walking the walk’ can be even more effective. The following weekend we got a chance to literally take a hike for the Balkans Floods Appeal. We joined two stages of the Táin March – an annual event retracing the epic journey of Queen Maeve of Connacht across Louth in Celtic times. Dressed in our Iron Age best, we took part in a parade to the town square in Dundalk on Saturday 7 June. Under sunny skies, it was very pleasant… though this was just a prologue to the next day’s trek through the Cooley Mountains.

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On Sunday we set out – my ‘Bosnian Braveheart’ (OK, mixing eras and ethnicities but the poor guy almost believed he was Mel Gibson) and I, together with our older kids and a loyal comrade who’d come all the way from Dublin. Apart from us novices, the rest of the group comprised seasoned climbers and members of the Irish army. Gallantly, we advanced into the mist and what meteorologists had dismissed as an ‘occasional shower’. The rain became torrential. Battling against the wind tested our endurance.

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Despite the weather, the trail revealed its raw beauty. Crossing moors of heather interspersed with alpine flowers, we tramped over rugged stone and mossy grass. Further on, we squelched into bogland and splashed through trickling streams. Whenever the clouds lifted slightly, the view was stunning. Finally, for extra drama as we made our descent towards the coast, the heavens roared with a deafening clap of thunder. Maybe that was Nature’s way of reminding us why we were walking. Being absolutely soaked seemed appropriate when we thought of those caught up in the Balkan floods.

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Wet and weary, we arrived at our destination – the village of Carlingford. There, wholesome Irish stew was provided for the marchers and this quickly revived the spirits of the carnivores. While the fresh air and our sense of physical ‘achievement’ left all of us feeling exhilarated. We raised some more money by doing children’s face painting… until it started to pour again. From this activity and the generous support of friends and family for our outdoor pursuits, we collected €465 for the Irish Red Cross. This brings the total from our efforts so far for the Balkans Floods Appeal to nearly €600. And we’re still counting!

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We’re planning a few more events over the weeks ahead. So watch this space – and why not get involved? Join us… or take action wherever you may be. Fundraising isn’t easy, especially under current economic conditions. From our own experience, we know most people have very little to spare. But if many individuals donate a small amount, this adds up to really substantial aid. Every tiny drop of assistance matters.

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With World Cup 2014 underway, Balkan nations are back in the news. Though, this time, it’s for sporting reasons. Croatia opened the tournament – playing the hosts, Brazil. And Bosnia won hearts with its valiant debut against the formidable Argentina. We’re proud to be shouting for the Zmajevi! We’re also asking Irish fans to get behind Bosnia and Herzegovina, both on and off the pitch. When Džeko and the lads ‘give it a lash’ perhaps we could remember what’s happened to their country. Then think about all the people in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia who are trying to recover from the floods. Please support them!

Organisations helping the Balkans from Ireland:

The Irish Red Cross ‘Balkans Flood Appeal’ – donate online at:

http://www.redcross.ie/news/appeals/balkan-floods-appeal/

Human Appeal Ireland – donate online at:

http://humanappeal.ie/blog/bosnia-floods-appeal/#.U4bwh_nMRCg

Whitewater Foundation  – donate online at:

http://www.whitewaterireland.ie/whitewaterfoundation/floods-in-serbia-and-bosnia/

Also read our letter ‘Crisis in the Balkans’, Irish Times (2/6/14):

http://www.irishtimes.com/debate/letters/crisis-in-the-balkans-1.1815660

And see the article ‘Made in the Balkans’, Irish Times (28/5/14):

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/made-in-the-balkans-the-man-blamed-for-starting-the-first-world-war-1.1811393

This post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 20 June 2014

Of war and waves

Shortly after our wedding in 1998, my Bosnian husband and I decided we’d had enough of Europe for a while. I’d been offered a job as an English teacher in Japan and – knowing that, on our budget, we’d never have such a travel opportunity again – we seized the chance. So, instead of settling down, we embarked on an odyssey. We spent two years in what we affectionately called our ‘safe third country’. Where, unlike in either Ireland or Bosnia, both of us enjoyed equal status as aliens. From the furthest galaxies, it seemed.

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Telling people I was from Ireland was often met with an enthusiastic response: ‘Ah… Iceland!’ Initially I was miffed that much less populous outcrop could be mistaken for the Emerald Isle. However, I soon discovered that whenever Japan’s TV channels had any ‘global’ focus it tended towards themes of national relevance – a shared geographical phenomenon, for instance. Hence numerous re-runs of documentaries about plate tectonics in the vicinity of Reykjavik. Lacking active volcanoes, my homeland barely featured on the Japanese world-map. Ireland was an unknown entity to all but a handful of music buffs who’d heard of U2 and, weirdly, the Nolan Sisters. And as for Bosnia… ‘Boston?’ was the typical reaction. A whole country, with a poignant recent past, relegated in the fame stakes to below the rank of a provincial city!

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We put the misunderstanding down to American influence. From baseball to fast-food, we saw how this permeates Japan. From its conurbations right into rural regions like Aomori, the prefecture in which we lived. On the cusp of the new millennium, foreigners were still a rarity in this northernmost district of the main island, Honshu. Off the tourist trail, Aomori was a pastoral place, renowned for gigantic apples and harsh winters. Its most prominent non-natives belonged to the US military base in the town of Misawa – one of the largest of those established after Japan’s surrender in World War II. Civilians of other backgrounds were frequently presumed to be GI Joes or Janes. ‘Amerikajin ja nai,’ became our catchphrase as we clarified our European origins. Coming from such mysterious parts of our quaint patchwork of a continent, we proved intriguing. And, perhaps due to this strangeness, we made many Japanese friends.

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The welcome extended to us was genuine and warm-hearted. Our friends clearly relished their ambassadorial role as they explained their culture to us in diverse ways. Hospitality appeared to be a matter of immense pride and the stories they told brimmed with resolute spirit. Among older people, this could often be traced back to memories of wartime. We listened to recollections of those who’d survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the lethal incendiary raids on Tokyo. These were tales of bare existence, near-starvation, long-term consequences. But they were generally crowned with a patriotic ending – reminding us of Japan’s post-war success. Despite the fact that its economy was floundering by the 1990s, determination to achieve prevailed as a motto. Even my high-school students vowed: ‘ganbarimasu’ – ‘we’ll do our best’.

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However, some elders worried that the youth had grown pampered. Too westernised… in a country which had built its modern image on technology and material wealth, emulating its Euro-Atlantic rivals. ‘A nation of imitation’ my boss used to call it. Yet Japan was also a place of contradiction. Its Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples blended into an environment full of pachinko gambling parlours and ‘love hotels’ for privacy-seeking paramours. Tradition spanned the donning of ceremonial kimono and skinny dipping in sulphuric onsens (risqué for a former convent-schoolgirl but the ultimate in relaxation bliss). Trains ran fast and strictly to their schedules, life around hectic business hours had to be ‘convenient’… though the making of tea remained a timeless ritual. This land of Nikkei stock-brokers and paddy field farmers enchanted us. And gave us our first child.

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Meanwhile, back in the Balkans, conflict was breaking out again. The Japanese broadcasting networks, whose interests, we’d noted, were predominantly insular, began to report on atrocities occurring there. Things were bad when Kosovo was, news-wise, ‘big in Japan’. We watched with a terrible sense of déjà vu. This was just a couple of years after the Bosnian war. From the eastern edge of Asia we wondered what we could do – surely we could participate in the relief effort. But, being foreign and ignorant of the system, it was difficult to get started. Our city was somewhat less than cosmopolitan and public awareness of world affairs seemed limited. Also, the concept of fundraising for NGOs – especially those dealing with international disasters – wasn’t widespread. Japan’s contribution in overseas aid, drawn from its tax-payers, was regarded as sufficient. In Bosnia, we later saw evidence of this state-level support – it helped to restock Sarajevo’s bus fleet. Nonetheless, we managed to find two agencies which were running appeals for Kosovo – the Japanese Red Cross and the Association for Aid and Relief, Japan. Following a few phone-calls, we realised we could take action. Along with some dedicated friends, we launched into our campaign in Aomori.

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In spring 1999, we sold lapel badges that we’d made from silk cherry blossom. Attached to each flower was a paper leaf on which we printed the word Kosobo (the Japanese language has no phoneme ‘v’) in katakana script: コソボ. Next, we organised a ‘Balkan dinner’ in Aomori city’s cultural centre. This was indeed a gastronomic novelty. Nerve-wrecking too, as I had to instruct a group of far more proficient cooks on how to make burek from specially ordered filo pastry. It was all a bit surreal… though, according to our guests, very tasty. The historic town of Hirosaki then hosted our monster jumble sale. We weren’t sure if this idea would wash in a country where the sparkling new seemed so highly prized, but we were amazed at the positive response. Bargain hunting must be an innate human trait. For soon our stalls were empty and our collection boxes full. We talked at length about Balkan issues throughout this time, in particular, with my students at their school festival that summer. From their reactions, it was obvious that we’d taught them something of the world beyond the curriculum, something they might remember in future years. Finally, in December, we held a children’s Christmas party, with gifts from a beanpole Santa Claus who spoke with a suspiciously Bosnian lilt. Fortunately, he didn’t scare the kids!

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Altogether, we raised the equivalent of several thousand Irish pounds, or euro, guessing at the current exchange rate. The figure in yen – almost a million – was even more impressive. But the purpose of the venture couldn’t be measured in money. We were motivated simply by a responsibility to act, irrespective of distance, in relation to events that had personal significance. For us, the most valuable outcome was that so many people became aware of a situation about which they’d have otherwise known little.

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No-one involved in our Kosovo campaign could’ve envisaged that, twelve years later, Japan would be on the receiving end of international aid. On 11 March, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake shook the country – its epicentre at sea, only 130 km from the city of Sendai. Worse, it generated a devastating tsunami which inundated an extensive stretch of populated coastline. Aomori was badly hit. Although our city was sheltered by a peninsula, other parts of the prefecture were less lucky. Along its Pacific fringe, a wall of water slammed down upon towns like Hachinohe. Boats were tossed onto land, cars swept away. Homes vanished and their occupants were drowned. All this destruction near the sandy beach where our baby daughter had once splashed her feet in the ocean…

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Over the years, we’d lost contact with Aomori – moving and the demands of work and kids meant our links went neglected. But after hearing news of this catastrophe, we had to get in touch. Trying old-email addresses, most no longer valid, I got a reply from one of the teachers from my school. Then we found another friend on Facebook. While the enormity of the disaster, exacerbated by damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant, continued to emerge. Though better equipped for a crisis of this scale than the majority of nations and with a proud record of self-reliance, Japan requested outside assistance. The Ireland Japan Association (IJA) issued an appeal on behalf of the victims. From our village on the shores of the Irish Sea, where spring-tides are a warning of the savage force of water, we knew we had to respond.

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Our Aomori-born daughter turned eleven that April, so we used the occasion to make a contribution. She invited her schoolmates to a Japanese-themed birthday party held in the local community centre and, in lieu of presents, asked for donations to the IJA appeal. With karaoke, origami and an Irish attempt at sushi, the kids had lots of fun. There were games like a ’round Japan treasure hunt’ and a ‘chopsticks challenge’ – which required great dexterity to progress from picking up crisps and marshmallows to much trickier small sweets. For the adults, we also organised a pub-quiz which surprised competing teams with its Japanese twist! But the mental exertion was worthwhile, given the fine range of prizes we’d received from shops and businesses in the area. Their support was particularly generous as it came when trade was suffering as a result of the recession. Between these two events, we raised over €1800 – in cash donated to the Ireland Japan Association and a sterling draft made payable to the UK branch of the Red Cross. Again, it was just a tiny gesture – the only sign of solidarity we could offer the Japanese people from far-off Ireland. An arigatō for the concern they’d shown for refugees fleeing Kosovo.

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Two and a half years on, the legacy of the Tōhoku Earthquake still haunts Japan. The thousands of lives lost can’t be reclaimed. The chunks of coast swallowed by the killer wave can’t be restored. The north-east littoral is forever scarred. To this day, the Fukushima reactors remain unstable, leaking toxins in a radioactive nightmare that will likely last for decades. Yet our Japanese friends, in messages they sent us after the tragedy, emphasised their refusal to ‘give up’. Maybe it was a knee-jerk means of coping with collective trauma. Some might say it was merely echoing an official narrative readily absorbed in a place where group-think often stifles the individual voice. Possibly, to an extent, although there have been protests at the state’s handling of the nuclear fiasco and citizens are prepared to express their dissatisfaction.

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We read our friends’ comments as those of pure resilience. That strength in the face of adversity which we’d heard repeatedly when we were in Japan. Their words spoke their desire to reconstruct a broken country. Of course, it’s too soon to determine whether the Japanese authorities will honour their wish. And, no doubt, many people already feel disillusioned. But that attitude of striving together for the common good is one we Europeans should consider. It may sound naïve to cynical ears, including my own, though perhaps we could adopt a similar philosophy – telling ourselves: ‘let’s do our best’ to make things better. Ganbarimashō!