Kalahandi district of Orissa

January 16th, 2013

On November 7, 2012, ETW held a clothing distribution program for elderly and needy villagers in the Kalahandi district of Orissa, one of the poorest in the country.  Abinash Mund and Chinmaya Behera, the local organizers, say that work on the project has progressed at a faster pace than they ever could have imagined when they began two years ago.

ETW volunteers, with the help of gram-panchayats, survey Kalahandi’s local villages to find potential recipients for the program.  At this latest distribution, approximately 200 villagers were presented with new clothing, along with a meal that was donated and prepared by members of the same village.

Approximately 5000 saris, dhotis, and blankets were distributed between October and December of 2011.  So far this season, over 3200 saris and dhotis have been donated, and more are expected.

ETW is also celebrating the acquisition of a new ambulance in Kalahandi with which it plans to conduct local health camps.  To date, over 1000 health cards have been prepared for the ongoing care of elderly and needy residents of 20 panchayats.

The Joy of Giving

September 7th, 2012

Embracing the World’s youth movement, AYUDH, organized its annual European youth empowerment gathering at Embracing the World’s center in Germany from 15 – 21 July 2012. This year’s gather was themed, “The Joy of Giving.” Each national AYUDH group represented at the gathering had made a pledge to implement at least one small “joy of giving” project in their country. As the hosts of the gathering, the German group wanted to be one of the first ones to fulfill their pledge and contribute something to their community.

Youth from all over Germany met in Berlin from 10 – 12 August 2012 to continue the spirit of giving. On the first day, the youth set up a stall at a charity-flea-market and sold items that friends and relatives had given to them, thereby raising funds to support the educational initiatives of Embracing the World in India.

On the second day, inspired by Amma’s Amala Bharatam Campaign to clean public spaces in India, the youth undertook a clean-up drive in one of Berlin’s biggest public parks. Armed with brooms, gloves, trash bags and gripping tongs the youth split up into several groups to pick up thousands of cigarette buds, plastic items and broken pieces of glass from the grounds of the park. One of the participants remarked: “The reactions of the people in the park were really different. Some people thanked us for our work, one little girl even took a gripping tong and helped us for one hour. When we were done, she wanted to take home some cleaning supplies in order to keep the park clean in the future. Others were really skeptical because they had never seen youngsters doing this kind of work on a voluntary basis – one elderly lady thought we were searching for something really valuable on the ground and when we told her that we were here to collect the trash, she said that we must be criminals, who do this kind of work as a punishment. Learning that we were doing the cleaning out of our free will, she obviously got a shock…”

Though the youth were not able to clean up the entire park during this one day, they were happy to at least having cleaned up one part of it, thereby setting an example of selfless service and care for Nature.

Discovering Rikuzentakata

May 5th, 2011

On April 15th, Br. Shantamrita Chaitanya, Embracing the World’s representative in Japan and Director of Amrita Heart, our Japan-based representative organization, set out into the disaster-affected area. At the end of the road, he encountered the tsunami-hit coastal town of Rikuzentakata, which had been largely overlooked by relief organizations due to its remote location and small size. However, Br. Shantamrita found Rikuzentakata in desperate need of assistance, and after receiving a formal request from the town’s municipal government, he decided to concentrate ETW’s relief efforts on Rikuzentakata. This is the story of how it happened:

I spent most of Friday, April 15th, collecting all the needed items for the disaster-relief work. We bought food, work gloves and masks to protect against infection and potential radiation. We also had to buy a cheap tent and took a few thin sleeping bags from the Tokyo ashram, as that was all we had. We knew it would be colder in the disaster area, but never imagined exactly how cold it really was. There were three of us: Nath Hoshi, Santosh Miyazawa and myself. By the time we left the city, it was almost 9:00 p.m., and we had 450 km to drive. Our destination was Ishinomaki City, where ETW’s efforts had been focused until then.

It is said that Ishinomaki faced a tsunami of about 10 meters in height, which rushed 600 meters inland, destroying more than 500 houses in the coastal ports. The death toll here alone is recorded as more than 5,000 people, or about 19 percent of the total casualties.

As we approached Ishinomaki, it was about 2:00 a.m., and the low-fuel lamp flashed in our car. There had been no gas station for a long way, and we continued to search in vain. Even in the areas of the city unaffected by the disaster, all the gas stations were closed. As we were already running on reserve fuel, we had to stop in front of a gas station and wait for it to open in the morning. We parked across the street, in the parking lot of a convenience store. As I got out of the car, I smelled the strong salty odor of seawater. There also seemed to be a tinge of decaying marine life or something along with it.

We set up our tent right in the parking lot and were in our sleeping bags by 3:00 am. Though we were very tired, it was not easy to sleep, as the wailing of ambulances persisted for some time. Even in the middle of the night, people were walking past our tent, discussing their plans of where to go, what to do next, how to manage, and so on. Somehow, we fell asleep…

A few hours later, Santosh woke me up, saying that the gas station was now open. We packed up our tent, got in the car and started our day. Relieved that our tank was now full, we proceeded to the university campus, where Viveka had been based during his relief work with IVUSA (International Volunteer University Student Association). Upon our arrival, we were impressed to see thousands of volunteers milling about, registering for volunteer work, pitching more and more tents, etc. Ishinomaki is just one hour from Sendai city, which has a population of one million and is the capital of Miyagi prefecture. Due to the ease of access in reaching Ishinomaki, thousands of volunteers had been flocking there to help.

Seeing the level of organization and a seeming saturation of volunteers, we decided to travel farther north, to assess the situation in the next major residential area: Kesennuma. Due to the damaged roads, it took us two and a half hours to drive just 80 kilometers.

More than 2,000 people had died in Kesennuma, and there seemed to be the same amount of damage as in Ishinomaki, but far less volunteers to help. When we arrived, disaster-relief supplies were being distributed to a few thousand refugees, who were lined up for hundreds of meters. Some of them were wearing only sandals and old, worn-out socks. It was obvious that they had lost everything in the disaster.

Relief supplies were kept in neat rows, outside the gymnasium where the remainder was in storage. The refuges were divided into groups of 100 people, and allowed 10 minutes to collect the supplies they needed, and stuff them into a single garbage bag. Their eyes lit up as they sifted through boxes of socks, shoes, undergarments, sleeping bags and other items. For hours, a steady stream of people poured out of the school ground, each of them carrying a single garbage bag. Even the elderly and small children had to carry their own bags, heavily laden with supplies. They had no transportation to the refugee camps; they simply had to walk. It began to rain. The whole scene brought tears to my eyes.

We joined in the IVUSA again here, helping distribute relief supplies and serve a hot meal to the refugees. That night, we camped out with the students at a campground in the nearby hills. The temperature seemed to drop down to freezing. Fortunately, a few people shared some blankets with us, so we managed to sleep somehow.

The following morning, we joined the students for more mud-busting activity!

In the afternoon, we decided to travel even farther north, to survey the situation. A 13-meter-high tsunami hit Rikuzentakata, a sleepy coastal town of 23,000 people. About 10 percent of the population had died in the disaster, including about one-third of the city officials. At least 70 percent of the original population is now spread across 88 refugee centers, as their households were damaged or destroyed. Especially in the city center, the devastation is so complete that it numbs your mind.

Searching for the local volunteer center, we decided to first try the city hall. Originally, there was a beautiful city hall, which looked like this:

When we reached the location, this was the sight that met our eyes:

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After further investigation, we somehow reached the volunteer center and met the person in charge. Unbelievably, they are operating out of a small restaurant, which has been converted into an office. It seemed an impossible task to coordinate their urgent needs in such a minimal environment. Anyhow, the manager there encouraged us to bring a relief team back as soon as possible, providing us with all the needed information. With the clearly critical need and shortage of volunteers, we decided to make Rikuzentakata the destination of our next trip.

Tomorrow, 10 people will leave from Tokyo and Sendai, beginning work in Rikuzentakata on Tuesday. I pray for the success of their efforts…

Earth Day 2011

May 5th, 2011

In 2001, Embracing the World launched AYUDH, a global youth movement empowering young people to integrate universal values into their daily lives. AYUDH means peace in Sanskrit and is an acronym for a Sanskrit phrase meaning “youth perpetuating the wheel of dharma (righteousness).” AYUDH members aim to help establish a future of hope, peace and social engagement – starting with themselves.

In New Delhi, the local AYUDH chapter set aside Earth Day to raise awareness about the current climate crisis and other pressing environmental challenges, and to secure commitments from citizens to take some small but concrete steps to reduce their carbon footprint—turning off lights, fans and other electric appliances when not required—and to conserve water.

This is their report:

April 22, 2011:

We set up our stand at Dilli Haat on Aurobindo Marg, a place known as a confluence of various cultural traditions and handicrafts from different parts of the country. A large crowd of knowledgeable and passionate visitors coupled with the ambience of the place and the idea itself contributed to a truly memorable and rewarding evening.

The response from the public was much more enthusiastic than we had hoped! The wall-sized banner displaying the environmental commitments quickly ran out of space to accommodate signatures. While signing, people assured us that they would follow through on their commitments.

Another part of the AYUDH display was a dynamic exhibit to capture ideas and inspiration for a better tomorrow. The state of our earth was put across in the shape of a dry and barren tree atop a famished earth. People were asked to contribute their ideas, which could liven up this dying earth. The ideas were pinned up to the tree in the form of green leaves. People came in droves to contribute their ideas and suggestions. Within a few short hours, the tree which had looked so barren when we put it up in in the morning was fluttering with the green leaves of hope.

Finally, we took the day as an opportunity to extend the distribution of tulsi saplings that was done during Amma’s visit to Delhi last month. Throughout the day, we distributed 1,000 tulsi saplings free of cost to those who visited our exhibition at Dilli Haat. In general people seemed really happy to get the sapling. They assured us that they would take good care of it and nourish it with all their love and warmth. We felt happy to be able to contribute to Amma’s vision of nurturing saplings in the service of reforestation and the restoration of harmony between humanity and nature.

At the end of they day, what we took home was the understanding that in general, people clearly understand the deteriorating environmental condition that we are in right now, and voluntary initiatives to spread the message to save the Earth are wholeheartedly welcomed. Obviously, there is need is to organize such initiatives so that like-minded people can come together and get to know that there are many who share their concern and that they are not alone in the fight to save our planet. This in turn would give them hope to continue their efforts at making the world a better place to live.

Each of us who participated that day felt that it is very important that the we sustain the momentum we have generated. It is our hope and prayer that we in AYUDH-Delhi will be ever ready to do so.

Let’s Finish It All: Shoulder to Shoulder in Japan

April 26th, 2011

On April 3rd, 2011, Koichi Kanematsu again accompanied a group of students, with whom in years past he has coordinated Embracing the World disaster relief and housing projects in India, back into some of the most severely damaged villages and towns Japan. This is their story.

7 April 2011

It was the night of the seventh of April, and I had just fallen asleep in our tent. We were camping along with hundreds of other volunteers on the lawn of a local university, which had been transformed into the headquarters for the relief efforts in Ishinomaki. Half an hour before midnight, an earthquake of magnitude 6.0 suddenly hit. It felt as if the earth was pushing me straight up. It seemed like it lasted forever. I’ve experienced earthquakes before, but they have always been sort of a rolling sensation. This time, the earth was pitching up and down, intensely.

I crawled out of my sleeping bag and went outside. A loud air-raid-type siren started to sound, and an announcement was made, alerting everyone to the possibility of another tsunami. Volunteers crawled out from each tent, their flashlights scanning the night. Despite the potential magnitude of the situation, all the volunteers demonstrated the same noble-mindedness that had brought them from all over Japan to offer their service to the tsunami-stricken area. They remained calm and proceeded in an orderly fashion to the third floor of the university building.

In the dark of the university building, we all sat, quietly holding our breath. No one knew what was going to happen. Eventually someone brought in a radio and tuned in to an emergency-information channel. After about an hour, the tsunami alert was cancelled and we all returned to our tents. The epicenter had been near Sendai, but fortunately there was no real damage.


On the fourth of April, we had returned to Ishinomaki. There were 51 volunteers this time—28 IVUSA (International Volunteer Student Association) members and 20 students from Kokushikan University Sports Medicine Department. After we arrived, we set up a large tent to use as our head office and one for cooking. Next to them, we set up about nine more tents to sleep in. If we really pack ourselves in—like sardines in a can—we we able to fit five or six of us in a tent. But there was no room to even roll over!

The first thing we did was to remove dirt from houses in an area called Kawakita. Before we started working, the mayor of Kawakita spoke to all of us. He told us that 140 of the village’s 160 elementary-school students were still missing. When the earthquake struck, they had all been lead out of the school into the schoolyard, only to be washed away when the ocean rolled in. He warned us that there was a chance we might come across some dead bodies as we worked. This was hard for the volunteers to hear, and I could tell they had to fight to keep themselves together emotionally.

The volunteers divided into five groups of nine members each. Each group had a group leader. Each group focused on certain houses, sweeping out all the dirt and bringing out all the chairs, tables, futons, TVs, laundry machines, dressers, etc. Looking at the walls of the houses, you could see the high-water mark—almost six feet up.

At the house at which I was to help, a young mother and her teenage daughter were quietly carrying out all their heavy furniture. Dirt streaked the mother’s cheek next to the dust-mask she wore. I joined them and helped them carry out all the tatami mats, which were extremely heavy, as they were soaked with water. We then took out the rest of the furniture as well. We found a tricycle and fashioned it into a cart and used it to haul garbage out to the roadside. Then, we swept all the dirt out of their garage.

At first, the facial expressions of the mother and daughter were a bit stiff, but since the students kept speaking to them in lively voices, they gradually started to relax and show smiles. I could feel their hearts—which had been somewhat hardened due to the swift blow of the tsunami—slowly soften in response to the students’ dedication, vigor and humor.

Some students became quite close with the families they helped. Many of the families invited the volunteers to return the next year to go fishing with them. The work, however, was very intense. Under normal circumstances, no one would enjoy such burdensome work—carrying heavy material all day, sweeping stinky dirt. Regardless due to the students’ determination to complete the work and thereby help people so immersed in sorrow, everyone was able to maintain their energetic spirit and enthusiasm.

After two days doing such work, the volunteer organizers asked us to move to another village, but the students wanted to continue in Kawakita, as they had established a special bond with the people there. They even began chanting “Let’s finish it all! Let’s finish it all! Let’s finish it all!” At that moment, the volunteers were glowing so beautifully—to me, to the people in the area, and to everyone. They were burning their wonderful being into our eyes.

Feel other’s sorrow as my own sorrow. One for all, all for one. Put yourself aside and think about others and act for them. If you do so, you can feel much deeper joy and happiness than you attain from filling your own desires.


On the second day, the IVUSA representative, a staff member, two students and I paid a visit to a town called Minami-Sanriku. There, we picked up various required supplies, like soap, shampoo and toothbrushes. We also took 20 cases of vegetable juice and cough drops, as many of the volunteers had developed sore throats due to sleeping in the chill coastal air. When we left, our car was fully loaded.

Every single house on the coast in Minami-Sanriku had been washed away. In fact, it was hard to believe that a village had once been there. It was nothing but wreckage—demolished cars and scraps of who-knows-what covered the ground. The Self Defense Military, from which we obtained our supplies, was using cranes and bulldozers to clear the area. The police from various prefectures were also helping. It was simply too dangerous an environment for mere volunteers.

Walking around the town saw all the different ways in which various groups and institutions were providing service. A cell-phone company had set up a table for charging mobile phones. Israeli Army troops along with the Ministry of Health, Labor & Welfare had set up a medical clinic, collaborating with Japanese medical teams. Big Israel soldiers walking amongst the rural, old ladies—stooped with age—somewhat took me aback. A truck with a Ramen Noodle logo painted on the body was delivering noodles to people.

One of the IVUSA members’ grandparents lived in the town, and we wanted to visit them. As the village was totally decimated, the student had trouble finding her grandmother’s house. As we travel along the beach, the impact of how horribly mangled the town was, really hit us. I couldn’t help but marvel at the power of Nature and our powerlessness in its face.

Eventually we located the house. As it was located on a hill, it had not been damaged. However, since there was no running water, they had to pump water from a well and carry it back home. When we pulled up to the house, the grandmother was standing outside. The way that the student rushed out from the car and ran to her grandmother left a heartwarming impression on me. Her grandmother had a big smile on her face. It was a slightly modest, but moving reunion. We spent some time with them, talking. Before we left, I asked the grandmother if she was receiving relief goods. She modestly answered that she had enough. However, since we were well aware that everyone was struggling with limited supplies, we left them mineral water and vegetable juice.


On the third day, we were asked to aid Otschi-Cho, in the prefecture of Iwate. An IVUSA staff member who is very experienced in disaster relief joined me and two other students. Just like Minami-Sanriku, Otsuchi-Cho seemed to have vanished.

When we arrived at Otsuchi-Cho Town Assembly Hall, there were many volunteers gathered there. After getting in touch with our local contact, we were taken to our assigned house. The work was similar to that in Kawakita—sweeping dirt from house and removing furniture. The flooring also had to be ripped out, and the sludge gathered underneath the floorboards scraped away. The IVUSA expert explained that sludge not smells bad but also carries bacteria and other vectors for disease. In rural villages like these, many of the toilets don’t properly flush. During the flooding, human waste is thus mixed with the flood water. This can lead to outbreaks of disease. Termites can also infest the floorboards. Unless it is dealt with now, the houses could become structurally unsound very quickly.

Another nonprofit organization had organized a Chinese restaurant to supply food for the villagers. In order to do so, a tent needed to be erected in a nearby parking lot, and volunteers were also required to cook, serve and maintain the queue. The restaurant had brought pork and sweet-bean dumplings. These were cooked onsite and served to the people still steaming. Pork miso soup was also provided.

The people staying in their houses—be they whole or half-collapsed—had less access to information regarding the availability of food and other relief supplies than those staying at the refugee camps. I wanted to make sure they knew about the Chinese food being prepared for them, so I got on a collapsible bicycle I had brought with me and visited each house. I knocked on as many doors as possible, and called out in front of the houses, hoping that my efforts might allow one more person to come and avail themselves of the delicious soup and dumplings.

An old lady, bent with age, was sitting in her house all alone. When I walked up to her door, she got up and began carefully walking across the ply-board that now covered her recently stripped floor. I insisted, “Grandma, please sit down, sit down!” But in spite of what I said, she kept walking towards me. I told her, “We are making pork miso soup. Please come get it.” The lady smiled delightfully and said, “Thank you very much for your trouble. Thank you so much,” and bowed her head again and again, joining her hands in prayer.

At another household, a young boy, who looked like an elementary-school student, came out. I told him about the food. He excitedly called out to his mother in the back of the house, “We can get hot pork miso soup! Let’s go!”

I also went over to where the people were standing in line to receive relief goods at the assembly hall. I called out: “We have pork miso soup here! Please come! It is very hot and delicious!” Many people replied to me with big voices saying, “Thank you so much, thank you so much!” and bowed to me again and again. I did not feel worthy of such appreciation. I could only leave there, bowing back to them, grinning with embarrassment. These small encounters and interactions with people brought me much joy and happiness.

A young couple was busily taking dirt out of their house in the rain. Their recently built, and once splendid, home was now tilted and half-collapsed. A flipped-over car was leaning against their wall. They were working quietly. I called out to them. They looked at me, and I could see the exhaustion on their faces.

When I told them about the food, their eyes brightened and they bowed to me and said, “Thank you for your trouble. Yes, we will be there to get some food, then.” They expressed their appreciation in a Miyagi dialect, and I felt that we instantly shared something no words can explain.

When I returned to the impromptu kitchen, I saw many people lined up to get lunch. It was nice to see them satiating their hunger on the good food. Many stomachs—and hearts—were filled.

That day, for the first time since coming to the tsunami-stricken area, I broke down in tears. I have no words to describe it. I had never become so emotional as I did that day. Not even when I first saw the devastation. Perhaps it was having had so many opportunities to interact with directly with the affected people that had induced the reaction in me.

I remembered Amma’s words: “Set aside your own issues for which you would ask ‘Why me, why me?’ and give priority to thinking about others, and their needs. There, in Otsuchi-Cho, I felt the power of this teaching. Through lending the small help I could, I received joy and happiness and touching experiences that never could have been attained through fulfilling my own selfish desires.

Those were short conversations, but everyone showed their joy without any hesitation and expressed their appreciation. Some even cheered me up. Everyone I met was very polite. They looked firmly into my eyes and gave me truly pleasant smiles, despite their terribly difficult and painful situations. I was experiencing their sorrow as my own. My heart was deeply touched by their kindnesses and strength.

As a mere individual, my ability to help others is quite limited. I sometimes become frustrated about this, thinking that I should be able to do more for them. However, in some way, by putting myself in the shoes of the disaster-affected people, I was able to share my heart with them, and this seemed to make a real impact. It didn’t take much—a sincere smile, interacting with care.

I shed my tears in the rain. However, I felt somehow very warm in my heart, immersed in a feeling of wonder, as if I was being held in Amma’s lap. I would give anything to help others, as one of Amma’s tools, in her hand, with her compassion and love.

One more memory I would like to share. At one point, we were helping a 70-year-old lady, who lived all alone in a small one-story house. We carried out her furniture, tatami mats and other household items. We also stripped her floor, scraped off the sludge and sprinkled lime. We then made a floor frame and put plywood boards on top it. The old lady was so charming and playful. She immediately hit it off with the students. Everyone was joking and having fun. When we had completed the work, loathing to part, the volunteers took commemorative pictures and exchanged email addresses and telephone numbers. The old lady couldn’t hold back her tears.

After we all got into the car and began to drive away, I watched the charming grandmother in the rearview mirror. She was smiling and waving goodbye to us. Watching her, something warm bubbled up in my heart. I watched her until she disappeared.

Four Days in Ishinomaki—Relief and Reflections from Japan

April 4th, 2011

For more than 10 years, the Japanese student volunteer organization IVUSA has been sending groups of students to India to participate in Embracing the World’s housing projects for the homeless and for disaster refugees. These students participated in ETW projects to build homes for tsunami refugees in both Kerala and Tamil Nadu after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. And in 2010, after devastating floods in Karnataka, they helped ETW to build homes for people whose islands had been entirely submerged by floodwaters. Many of the volunteers have made several trips to India for this purpose.

Koichi Kanematsu is Embracing the World’s coordinator for these annual housing projects. After the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Koichi flew to Japan to lend his considerable organizing capability and experience in disaster relief to help many of the same volunteers he has worked with in India to carry out relief work in the hard-hit Miyagi Prefecture. While supporting their work, Koichi was simultaneously working to identify the specific needs of the disaster refugees which Embracing the World can help to meet.

This is his first report.

Day One:
28 March 2011
Tokyo to Miyagi Prefecture

Leaving early this morning we drive for about 400 kilometers from Tokyo to Ishinomaki in Miyagi Prefecture. Ishinomaki was one the areas hardest hit by the tsunami. There are 16 members of us including 9 students going for the relief work. I know many of the group members from their trips to build houses in Amma’s projects in India. They are experienced disaster relief workers who I have worked with in Nagapattinam, the worst-hit area in India after the 2004 tsunami, as well as in Kerala, in Karnataka last year, and even as far back as 10 years ago in Gujarat after the 2001 earthquake there.

When we draw near to the Fukushima Nuclear Plant, we put on masks and close the windows tight. There is a sudden quiet in the van. The beautiful, snow-topped mountains are almost blindingly white. It is still so cold in this area. The road is filled mainly with Self-Defense Force (SDF) trucks, ambulances, fire trucks–all heading north. Most people are wearing masks.

We stop for gas. At least 30 cars are in the queue ahead of us when we pull in; there is barely space to get off the highway. Fuel is being rationed—each vehicle can get only 13 liters of fuel.

In many places, the road is bumpy; the earthquake has torn up the tarmac.

Day Two:
29 March 2011
Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture

Up early again. We split up into two groups. One group will work to clear rubble and help clean up damaged houses and public areas. The second group will cook food for people staying in a junior high school that has been converted into a shelter for about 900 refugees. People are also living in the neighboring houses; they need help, too.

Today I am with the cooking group. There is a place where the SDF provides drinking water from a giant tanker. We go down to get some water for cooking rice. The SDF people are there to help. While we are filling up our water jugs, two small children who are obviously brother and sister come to get some drinking water. In their arms are four empty bottles and a bucket. I ask them whether I can help to carry the heavier water vessels for them. With heartbreaking kindness and respect, they turn down my offer. To the SDF members, they bow deeply and say, “Thank you very much for your hard work and all your help.” Even after that, they press a candy into the hands of each soldier. As we drive away, they are waiting and waving to us with their little hands and shy smiles. I know these children have lost their houses and their stomachs are not full. But they are smiling at me and I can only smile back. I am hoping we see them later when we are distributing the food.

Outside the school/shelter, two dogs are tied up. No one knows who they belonged to before the tsunami—now they belong to everyone at the shelter. Every time children pass by the dogs, they call them by their new names, Shiro (white) and Chibi (small one), and pat their heads with affection. The dogs are also very excited to be rubbed by the children—they stick their tongues out and shake their tails happily. Both dogs and in some cases the children too have been recently orphaned—I can see that in these small interactions, they are helping each other to heal.

We set up our kitchen tent, and then cook hot soup and make Japanese onigiri rice balls. Some women who are staying in the temporary shelter come out to help us prepare the onigiri. Another group of women also joins us. They have come from further north—a place called Niigata which was hit by a serious earthquake in 2004. So many volunteers came to help Niigata then, and now they are here to return the favor. They have brought fresh vegetables—daikon, mushroom, negi, carrots and more—and they have spent the last two days chopping them. They say they are happy to be able to do something for the people here, after all that was done for them in their time of need. They have also come with a message for the people here, which they are eager to share: “With help, we overcame terrible difficulties, and we know that you can also do it for sure!”

When we bring the food to the shelter, we are met with lots of spontaneous smiles. In the cold weather, the refugees are happy to have some warm comfort food. They keep bowing and saying “thank you thank you” as we serve them. We are likewise happy to see smiles break across their faces which have clearly seen so much hardship in the past days. They tell us that in the first days after the tsunami, they got only one small rice ball to share among three people, and that only after waiting in a long queue. They say they didn’t know how to divide it among three people it is because it is so small. But they were happy to share with each other. Sometimes they did not get anything to eat and they just drank water to fill the stomach.

Some people come out to the tent to help us clean up, serve and even load the truck back up when we are done. In the end, almost all of them come out to say thank you to us. Everybody is shaking our hands.

I am struck that we came here to help them, but they have given us so much happiness. Everyone’s—ours and theirs—eyes are filled with tears. These people here lost everything—their houses are washed away, many of them lost family members. But they are not beaten—they joke with us as we work, and I see even older people working hard, cleaning toilets and rooms. The young people go out and help to clear away rubble and clean up the damaged houses. One man tells me, “I have lost everything. My house is gone, and I don’t know what to do.” As he speaks, he is looking up the sky with a gentle smile. Then he looks back at me and says, “Still I try to keep a positive attitude and do my best…” I find myself wondering if I could keep up the same positive spirit if I was in his circumstances. It is impossible not to have a deep respect and admiration for these people.

Later we go to the SDF base to pick up some underwear, shampoo, coffee, etc. to bring back to people in the temporary shelter. I was surprised to see the huge stock of all kinds of supplies at the base. They are distributing to the temporary shelters and the NGO organizations like us can pick up whatever we think we can distribute, after completing the necessary paperwork. We are told that this is the central distribution point in Ishinomaki City for all the supplies from all around Japan and what has been shipped in from different countries are. The base is open 24 hours, both for receiving supplies and for distribution. It is a very good start—and they are doing a good job at getting the supplies to the temporary shelters. It is more difficult to reach the people who are still staying in their homes or the homes of relatives. They are also in great need but so far it hasn’t been possible to reach them. There are other obstacles as well—for example, the distribution point has received lots of instant noodle packages, but there are no facilities at the shelters to heat water, so it is very difficult to prepare them.

Today also we had a couple of long and big earthquakes.

Every night there are meetings on the campus of the local university, where a kind of volunteer headquarters has been established. Representatives of all the volunteer organizations here exchange ideas and information about the location of temporary shelters, the best places to cook food, which areas need help with clean-up, medical information… there are even veterinary doctors sharing information on how to protect animals. The main thing that is clear is that more people are needed to clean up the houses and public spaces… so much devastation. Also another thing that comes up is that it is really important to check with the refugees what they really need, and not just come up with our own ideas and bring them what we think they need. Here also, small groups partner with each other in order to be more effective. So many groups coming and going. On our next trip, we plan to stay in a tent in on the campus lawn here—the whole lawn is dotted with the tents of volunteers.

Most people—both refugees as well as volunteers—haven’t been able to take a bath for more than 10 days, since in many places there has been neither running water nor electricity. Finally the electricity is fixed and water is slowly reaching the area. Even then, it’s too cold here to take a cold bath. The SDF has arranged hot baths for some people. They told me that was bliss. I haven’t had a bath since leaving Tokyo. We haven’t eaten much—we didn’t want to eat the food we prepared for the refugees, as that would have been taking food from their mouths, and we know they need it so much worse than we do. Most of us are just eating a cup of instant noodles in the morning before we go out and again at night before we sleep. I don’t give it much thought—I know the tiny hardship we are undergoing is nothing compared to those we serve. Mostly I am filled with gratitude for this precious opportunity to serve people here. Cold outside but the overall feeling is one of unforgettable warmth.

Day Three:
30 March 2011
Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture

Today we all go to the peninsula where lots of villages were washed away by the tsunami. The area near the port has a very strong smell, like something rotten. We stop by a small shelter for about 80 refugees. We give them boxes of long sleeve shirts, pants, some medicines, toilet kits, and snacks, and we ask them what else they need.

They say they want notebooks and pens; they want to make to-do lists for what they need to do to get back to normal life. They need footwear—both sandals, as well as long rain boots to wear when they do heavy-duty work cleaning up the damaged areas. And they need underwear, and brassieres as well. They said there is not much need for women’s hygiene products—most of the people in these villages are elderly, and the women have already reached menopause.

They said the SDF brings rice, drinking water and another organization brings them bring rice balls every day. They received some wood stoves from a group in Hokkaido. These have been very useful as they don’t have to depend on gas or fuel. The stoves have given them a measure of independence; when we arrive, women are busily preparing breakfast with these stoves. They are friendly and welcome us with big smile. Even though they lost everything and their hearts are clearly filled with pain, they are still so cheerful in their interactions with us. I don’t know why but I am reminded of the sweet smiles on the faces of the people in Karnataka who lost their homes in the 2009 floods, when our team went to build houses for them. Why is it that the nicest people are the ones who have lost everything? Maybe once we let everything go, we can become what we are supposed to be.

I spend some time with the leader of this shelter. I ask him to please take care of his health, as it is still so cold. He assures me, “I have already reached the bottom. All I can do is walk up.”

Later we return with the promised supplies. All the elderly ladies are so excited to choose nice underwear from the big box, it is so nice to see their joyful happy smiles. The old men are jockeying around the box, too, calling out to their wives, “Hey, Kaachan (Mom), what do you think??” Everyone is laughing.

Day Four:
31 March 2011
Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture

The final day. Again we split up into two teams: clean-up and cooking. Outside its windy, raining and so cold.

The cooking team sets up our kitchen tent in front of the supermarket near the residential area where many people stay in the upstairs level of houses. We have been told that no other group has cooked for these people yet.

So we cook as much as we can—soup with lots of vegetables for 1,500 people. While the rest of the team cooks, five of us go door to door and visit each and every house to let people know that we are cooking food for them. I see an older couple, backs bent, as they work to clean up their house. It is painful to watch; it is really too much for them. But they are quietly and patiently doing the work at their own pace.

We walk through an area where the road is completely blocked with overturned cars. The houses here are badly damaged. We keep shouting, “Hello! Anybody home?” and tell them that we have hot soup, and they should please bring their pots. The news is received happily. Usually all the food and necessities are given to the temporary shelters, since their numbers are clear. However the people who have stayed in their homes feel like they have been forgotten. I cannot blame anyone, as going house to house seems an almost insurmountable task, and the volunteer groups are barely able to attend to the people in the shelters. More help is needed.

As the people come to receive the soup we prepared, I explain that these vegetables have been chopped by the women from Niigata, who themselves stayed in temporary shelters four years ago after the earthquake there, and that they have come to help the people here after having received so much assistance in their time of need, and being helped to overcome their own tragedy. As we fill their pots with soup, I remind them that so many people are with them, and that people all around the world are praying for Japan. They smile with watery eyes.

We also deliver soup to a school which has been converted into a shelter for another 80 or so refugees. Inside, I see a man giving haircuts to the other refugees. He tells me, “I am staying here with my wife. She is a teacher here. I am a hair stylist so I am trying to help with what I know…” With the help of the SDF the people here have just had their first bath yesterday after 14 days with no water.

In the afternoon, I join the clean-up team. There is a rule in place that even if people abandon their house, it is their responsibility to remove everything from the house. We come across a family with relatives in Sendai City; they are moving the day after tomorrow. We stop and help them with the heavy work of removing everything from their house. Even though the area is filled with rubble and devastation, the people evacuating their houses are taking pains to do so in a neat and orderly fashion, with the garbage on the street very well arranged in order, everything in plastic bags and neatly placed in line—very Japanese discipline. I am reminded of a ritual from my own family—every New Year’s Eve we used to clean the whole house. But before throwing anything away, even old furniture, a refrigerator or a desk, we would clean it meticulously first.

Everything we remove from the house is still soaking wet. The desk drawers are full of stinking water. The floor mat is heavy with water.

One member of our group participated in an ETW housing project in India almost 13 years ago. As we we work, he suddenly starts to sing some of Amma’s bhajans, or devotional songs (Amba Bhavani, Amma Amma Taye). He looks at me and says, “I still remember these bhajans even after 13 years!!” After that we all start to sing together as we work. Many of our group members have been to India and met Amma, and we often talk about Amma during quieter moments.

It is obvious that so many houses need help. We make a plan to return April 4th with a larger group of about 50 student volunteers, to help clean up more houses and cook more food as well.

Last reflections:

The refugees’ persistently positive attitude here reminds me of the attitude of the people in Gujarat, which they shared with Amma when she visited them after the 2001 earthquake: “God gave us everything. Now he has taken it back. It never belonged to us in the first place, so we are not sad that it is gone.” Moved by their plight, Amma helped to rebuild three entire villages for those people.

The local university has made a new rule that the students get credit if they participate in relief work. I believe it is good for students to see these situations and to interact with people here; it is good for people in the temporary shelter as well. Here we can learn so many things which one can never learn in textbooks. This is a chance to learn the most precious things which we might otherwise forget: compassion, patience, sharing, simiplicity, thankfulness for everything we have and which we take it for granted ….life, death, coexistence. I wish everyone could have this precious experience to serve people who are so in need of help. I am sure this will change one’s perspective forever—true transformation is bound to happen.

-Koichi Kanematsu

Embracing the World Volunteers Distribute Food and Water in Sendai; Assess Conditions on the Ground

March 15th, 2011

Embracing the World has sent its first group of local volunteers from our Japan Center to Sendai—the major city nearest the epicenter of the earthquake, and hit hard by both the quake (Japan’s worst-ever) and the subsequent tsunami. At Amma’s request, the ETW representatives went to Sendai in order to study the situation on the ground and also to distribute food and water for the refugees.

Here is their report: Read the rest of this entry »

Relief Effort for Japan Tsunami

March 13th, 2011

In response to the devastation due to earthquake and tsunami in Japan, three Japanese ETW representatives are en route to Sendai to assess the situation there. The team will explore avenues for Embracing the World to make a meaningful immediate and long-term contribution to the recovery effort. They plan to return on Monday and give a full report to Amma. Amma will be giving further instructions after the report.

For more information on how you can help, please visit Amma.org.

Embracing the World Researchers Empower Villagers to Install a Community Water Tap

May 23rd, 2010

With funding provided by the Government of India, Embracing the World researchers at Amma’s Amrita University are developing a revolutionary approach to vocational training, using multimedia and haptic technology.The project, s.a.v.e. (Sakshat-Amrita Vocational Education) is charting a course toward offering vocational education on a scale never before possible, by using breakthrough technologies to overcome traditional logistical barriers to educating remote and impoverished communities.
On 11 March 2010, in honor of World Plumbing Day s.a.v.e. delivered its first module on plumbing in the Tribal Settlement of Kumbitankuzhy, Idukki District, Kerala. In a break with customary practices, the course was targeted equally toward women and girls as toward men and boys.

The average existing income of course participants at the time of the course was $2.25 – $4.50 a day. By the end of the course, six young women and six young men had made a commitment to pursue plumbing as a profession.
Beyond helping course participants, it was critical to the architects of s.a.v.e that in the process of delivering a computerized vocational education course, the entire community would benefit. After approaching the local leaders of Kumbitankuzhy to learn about the community’s plumbing needs, s.a.v.e discovered the entire settlement of over 150 people shared a single water tap, resulting in long lines for fetching water. What the community really needed was a second community water tap. When the s.a.v.e. module was complete, the students (boys and girls) applied the lessons they learned from the computerized vocational content to the real world and installed a new water tap for the whole community.

Embracing the World is 1st NGO to Complete Homes for Victims of Karnataka Floods

May 23rd, 2010

In 2009, the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka were ravaged by unprecedented rainfall. The resulting floods destroyed millions of acres of crops and displaced 2.5 million people.

In October 2009, ETW pledged $10.7 million (Rs. 50 crores) in relief work for the flood victims. As part of this package, food, clothing, bedsheets, blankets and satellite-supported specialized medical care were immediately provided, with a team of 12 doctors and dozens of paramedical assistants making regular rounds through the refugee camps and affected communities, treating more than 500 patients a day.

On 17 February 2010, just 20 days after entering into an agreement with the Government of Karnataka to provide new homes for displaced flood victims there, ETW had already completed 100 of 2,000 pledged homes. ETW was the first nongovernmental organization to complete homes for the victims of this disaster. The Chief Minister expressed hope that ETW’s rapid progress would inspire other organizations to move quickly in their relief efforts.