FUKUSHIMA, Japan—Fukushima resident Marie Louise Kambenga, 50 years old, knows what it is like to be a refugee—but not in the way you’d think.
Twenty-two years ago this week, she escaped the Rwandan genocide and found refuge in Japan as a student at Fukushima’s Notre Dame School for Girls.
In 2013, she became a Japanese citizen, and has lived and raised her family in Fukushima. After an earthquake and tsunami caused a nuclear disaster on March 11, 2011, the Rwandan embassy encouraged her to evacuate, but she refused.
“The people of Fukushima saved my life,” she said, “and I could never abandon them.”
That’s why Kambenga created Cafe Rwanda, a monthly event at a temporary housing community set up for people who evacuated Namie Village, a town on the coast of Fukushima Prefecture, following the 2011 tragedy.
Kambenga and volunteers bring Rwandan coffee and tea to enjoy during live storytelling, musical performances, and more. She gives the community members a chance to unwind and let loose in what can often be a monotonous life, especially for the elderly residents who have nowhere else to go during the days.
Building a Community
Cafe Rwanda wasn’t always so organized.
Initially after the disaster Kambenga traveled around to hotels and gymnasiums that were taking in evacuees, offering them her coffee. She was already well traveled, having given lectures across the prefecture to raise money for her nonprofit organization Think About Education in Rwanda and her primary school, Umuco Mwiza, back in Rwanda.
She sought out those who she spoke to, and offered her what little support she could.
“I remembered how we needed help in the refugee camp in 1994, and I just felt that I had to do something to help them. What I could do was to offer them the coffee and tea that I had.”
“I remember in the early days after the tsunami, those who were evacuated, who had survived the tsunami,were traumatized. Some couldn’t even speak,” recalls Kambenga.
“One such man saw me speaking Japanese, and he was surprised and impressed. He asked me where I was from and I told him Rwanda, and he said, ‘Oh you have experienced a very hard time.’ He opened up to me that he lost his entire family. … He even started telling the high school students around him to study hard and learn to speak English like I could speak Japanese.”
The evacuees were eventually moved from gymnasiums to temporary housing shelters, places they remain more than five years after the disaster. So Kambenga started bringing volunteers to the shelters for Namie once a month.
“I and my partner, Watanabe Kyouko, decided we couldn’t go to every single community and only visit them once a year, so we decided on the two temporary housing shelters for Namie’s evacuees. By going once a month we could know the reality of their lives,” says Kambenga.
Yoshiko Amano, a resident who participates in Cafe Rwanda, not only loves her coffee and tea, but Kambenga as well.
“Living in the temporary housing community has nearly broken us. I was a recluse for six months and didn’t leave my room. I was even afraid to talk to Marie Louise because I thought she was a foreigner, but actually I heard her speaking Japanese, and I decided to talk to her. I heard her story and listened to her talk, and realized that she had been through something similar to what I still deal with, not being able to return home. Cafe Rwanda helped me come out of my depression, and I thank Marie Louise for that. We want to see an end to the radiation problem and go back to our normal lives. We have no idea when we will do this, and are therefore stuck. People like Marie Louise take our minds off of this issue, and just for a moment, allow us to enjoy ourselves.”
Ari M. Beser is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His new book, “The Nuclear Family,” focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings.