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Sharing refugee home cooking in school cafeteria made a big success
One step forwards in promoting understanding of refugee issues

Sowan Jin(right)
Natsuko Ueki(left)

People forced to move domestically or internationally due to causes such as strife, persecution, or human rights violations are called refugees. Refugees number over 50 million worldwide and last year a record high 3,260 people from 66 countries applied for refugee status in Japan.

The Hirayama Ikuo Volunteer Center (WAVOC)-affiliated Nanmin Kouryu Project is a volunteer group dedicated to supporting refugees and was created with the desire to help people become familiar with refugees. Members of the group and volunteer staff recruited with each project operate various events. Projects they have implemented include refugee futsal tournaments where around 100 refugees have participated, a clothing drive in collaboration with Uniqlo to deliver used clothing to refugees around the world, a mock refugee camp to give people a sense of what refugee life is like, and a refugee documentary film festival. Their most influential program, however, was Meal for Refugee (hereafter, “M4R”), held in January of this year.

Home cooking from Myanmar—taro and broccoli stewed in a light salty broth. With no unusual flavors, Japanese people found it tasty as well.

Sowan Jin, a former representative for the group, spoke about the event. “It was an experiment in which we offered refugee home cooking in a school cafeteria and donated a part of the proceeds to the NPO Japan Association for Refugees. Our theme was getting more people familiar with refugee issues. We felt that with M4R, we could get people interested in refugee issues in a natural way.”

Two items were offered on the menu—Azerbaijan-style home cooked meat and potatoes with tomato and a light Kachin-style taro stew, a traditional meal of a minority people from Myanmar. The fact that M4R events were a hit at other universities and the ease with which the meals could be made using familiar ingredients were decisive factors for the project.

Members of the group began preparing for the project several months in advance, creating posters and pop advertisements for the event. Natsuko Ueki, the representative of the group prior to Jin, reflected on the event, stating, “Regular people also use the cafeterias. In addition to promoting the event on campus, we also used Facebook to focus on getting the word out off-campus.”

Their frantic promotion efforts paid off, and the food created a big reaction from the first day. There were many complaints by people who could not try the food because it was sold out, so the group hurriedly extended the event for an additional week. Ultimately, the group sold 560 meals.

“We got a lot of positive feedback in post-meal surveys, with people saying they were happy their lunch could help support refugees. That’s what stays with us the most,” say Jin and Ueki, smiling broadly.

The group’s activities to support refugees have met with many obstructions. For example, due to privacy issues concerning the refugees participating, the group could not engage in extensive promotion of their refugee futsal tournament, such as its location. That is why the members of the group were extremely happy to have been able to create an opportunity for regular people to come in contact with refugee cultures and get so many of them interested in refugee issues.

“Even if it’s someone else’s problem, looking at it as if it were you and getting involved also helps you grow.” Jin gained this important insight while participating in the Nanmin Kouryu Project and repeatedly engaging in the process of trial and error.

Conversely, Ueki felt that “People who do not know anything and are not interested are the biggest issue. I feel choosing to be aware of issues and taking a look at what’s going on around you is essential for everyone.”

Ueki will be graduating next spring and Jin will be returning to Korea next year. In the future, they will be walking different paths, but both vow to continue supporting refugees in a form different from that they have done as students.

A commemorative photo of futsal tournament for refugees. Each year dozens of volunteers serve as staff for the event.

Over 6,000 items were gathered in one week of a clothing drive.

A mock refugee camp display set up in conjunction with the clothing drive.


Sowan Jin(right)
Third Year, School of Law

Originally from Seoul, South Korea, Sowan Jin (right) graduated from Pungmun Girls’ High School. In high school Jin engaged in volunteering for war victims. She is currently active in several volunteer groups. Her hobby is dancing.

Natsuko Ueki(left)
Fourth Year, School of Law

Originally from Miyagi, Natsuko Ueki (left) graduated from Miyagi First Senior High School. She has been an active gymnastics athlete for 10 years, starting in junior high school. She became interested in volunteering when she was hospitalized after an injury in a competition in her first year at university.