Women of vision

Home for Everyone

    As the refugee issue causes increasing concern worldwide, there have been calls for Japan to take in more people. Eri Ishikawa has been raising her voice to bring about that change.

    Every morning asylum-seekers wait in front of the Japan Association for Refugees. Many are from Africa and South Asia. The non-profit organization provides them with relief items like clothes, sleeping mats and food.

    Ishikawa is the organization's leader. She says many of the people need the most assistance during the refugee application process, which takes 3 years on average. "Many fled their country without bringing a lot of belongings," Ishikawa explains. "They arrive without food and clothes. We want to provide them with basic necessities."

    Ishikawa organizes job fairs to match asylum seekers with Japanese firms for interviews. New arrivals become eligible to work in Japan six months after applying for refugee status, but without speaking the language, it is difficult to find out about positions. Ishikawa's organization provides translators.

    She says it's important for both sides to get to know one another, explaining "by offering many chances for Japanese people and refugees to meet, I want to change any prejudice or misunderstanding that each side may have towards the other."

    Assisting people in dire situations can be difficult work. But Ishikawa's colleagues say her personality keeps them upbeat. She began volunteering in high school to fight for the well-being of others. In her university years, she devoted her energy to help launch the association she now heads.

    After becoming a mother of two, Ishikawa also took on problems that affect female asylum seekers. Her organization offers workshops to help them learn about reproductive health. "Some women face unplanned pregnancies," Ishikawa explains. "After experiencing pregnancy and motherhood myself, I feel for these women that are marginalized or put in vulnerable situations."

    Ishikawa feels for all asylum seekers in Japan, and is calling on the government to accept more as refugees. The country is doing far less compared to other industrialized nations when it comes to granting asylum. Thousands of applications have been filed, but less than a dozen have been approved. Ishikawa thinks that figure reflects the Japanese people's mindset towards refugees.

    Ishikawa is trying to change that mentality and create an atmosphere where newcomers can feel at home. She and her staff are organizing activities to give people a chance to learn more about refugees. "I want all of us in Japan to think about what we can do," she says.

    Ishikawa recently organized an event and invited a Syrian man to speak. He is one of the more than 60 Syrians who have applied for refugee status in Japan. "Please think about it and ask your own conscience," he said at the event. "Why isn't Japan addressing the problem of Syrians in the country?"

    Ishikawa hopes these events will stir more discussion. "I want Japanese people to think about what they will do if a refugee moves in next door," she says. "I want them to think about it as something that concerns them. 2016 should be a year where we can deepen discussion without being afraid of having different opinions."

    Ishikawa acknowledges there's still much more to be done, and she says she won't stop until Japan becomes a "home for everyone."