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Rwanda Genocide Survivor Helping Fukushima’s Nuclear Refugees

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Marie Louise Kambenga bonds with two residents of Namie, who live in the temporary housing community located in Nihonmatsu, during Cafe Rwanda in February 2016. Photographs by Ari Beser.

 

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.

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Marie Louise Kambenga has been visiting evacuated nuclear refugees and serving them Rwandan Coffee and tea since the disaster struck over five years ago.

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.

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During the Cafe Rwanda event, temporary housing residents enjoy games, as well as coffee and tea imported from Rwanda.

Helping Hand

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.

Comments

  1. Faustin
    May 13, 7:02 pm

    A legacy to lead and illuminate the world!

  2. Innocent
    2209 Jacocks Lane apt#2714
    May 8, 12:44 pm

    This story very touching and it really has a theme
    To it I love it and it has a wonderful message

  3. Faustin Ntamushobora
    Rwanda
    April 15, 3:35 pm

    Mrs. Kambenga,
    You are impacting the world through your past experiences. As you share your life with Japanese people who have gone through similar experiences, you are creating a rendezvous of giving and receiving that leads to transformation and healing among yourself and the people you are ministering to. I am glad you have become a bridge that makes Rwanda and Japan kiss each other. I applaud your work and wish you the best!
    Dr. Faustin Ntamushobora, CEO, TLAfrica, Inc.

  4. Leopold Muhoza
    Rwanda
    April 13, 9:16 pm

    A great philanthropist.

  5. Leopold Muhoza
    Rwanda
    April 13, 9:11 pm

    Une grande philanthrope.

  6. Derrick Kabayiza
    Rw
    April 12, 4:31 am

    Ohh that’s so kind of you madam Kambenga, I wish I was there to help you serve that community. I would quit my Banking career for that noble cause.