Rika Ueno

The Kobe earthquake inspired me to volunteer. The recent disaster reminds me why.

I was asleep when the earthquake struck Kobe 16 years ago. I was woken when a bookshelf fell by my head. Everything in our house was destroyed and we could not understand what happened. For a while, my mom, sister and I just sat next to each other in the middle of the mess that cold winter morning. My sister and I were sent to my grandmother’s house. When we came back, we decided to volunteer. We went to city hall (the volunteer centre) and helped bring water to people’s homes. We also sat in a cold school room and waited for people to come and register for “ship stay” (ships equipped with beds and showers). We just wanted to help in some way.

Life continued and we recovered. After I finished my Masters in human security studies, I was looking for a job when my father suggested the Japanese Red Cross Society (JRCS). It was one of few organizations implementing domestic and international relief operations which recruited new graduates. I have happily been with the JRCS since 2007.

In 2011, when the earthquake struck Japan, I was in the JRCS headquarters with colleagues. I always thought that I would not be afraid if I was in another earthquake, but all of the tremors reminded me of my memories from when I was young during Kobe. It especially reminded me of how the people suffered. This time, I was directly involved in the response. At first, I helped prepare disaster response structures. I collected information about the ongoing disaster and accessed information for our medical teams. Then I helped respond to an outpouring of generous calls, emails and visits from people wanting to donate and help where they could.

All the while volunteers were fulfilling, and continue to fulfil, many essential tasks like supplying food at evacuation centres and stocking relief items. Throughout this time I worked with language service volunteers, processing and replying to incoming emails: hundreds came in every day from within Japan and abroad. Not many people saw the work of these dedicated volunteers in our office, but they were so hard working, patient and committed. Some of them started at 09:00 and did not leave until 21:00 every day. They were so dedicated. Seeing everyone come together, and their selfless generosity, was truly inspiring. It brought hope and re-energized many of us when the days seemed so long.

Rika now lives in Kuala Lumpur where she recently joined the Asia Pacific zone team as an IFRC delegate in organizational development. It was a role that she was preparing for before the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan.

Rika Ueno

Rika Ueno, delegate, organizational development and volunteering unit, Asia Pacific zone