“I couldn’t just stand there doing nothing.” These are the words of Atomu Tanii, a student who assisted Ukrainian refugees in Austria and Poland. Russia launched its military invasion of Ukraine in February. Millions of displaced people fled the war and crossed borders with only the clothes on their backs, pouring into neighboring countries and regions. We asked Tanii, who has since returned to Japan after finishing up his relief work, about what led him to get involved and his thoughts on his activities there.
Two songs that spurred him into action
Tanii told us he was spurred to act by two songs: “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by John & Yoko and The Plastic Ono Band with The Harlem Community Choir and “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson. He first heard these two songs in the early years of elementary school. His parents, who loved The Beatles and Michael Jackson, told him he should listen to them. He did not understand the meaning of the lyrics, and at the time, the images in the music videos seemed like a story from some distant land. He could not see how they related to his life. However, the images of devastation around the world were deeply etched into his mind when he was still just an elementary school student.
When he went to junior high school, he had the opportunity to take a special class where he learned about world poverty. “There are many children throughout the world who die from poverty and infectious diseases. What I realized is that if each of us takes action, we can save the lives of these children and ease their suffering,” recalls Tanii. He recounts seeing a photograph showing a group of emaciated children whose life appeared to have faded from their eyes. This image is still burned into his mind: “I felt that I wanted to help those who are suffering from war and poverty. This was the moment when the distant world of the music videos I had seen in elementary school became something that affected me personally.
“I couldn't just stand there doing nothing.”
The military invasion of Ukraine has resulted in many civilian casualties, including children. As the conflict drags on, many displaced people are flooding into neighboring countries and regions. Some boys and girls, hoping to get to safety, left their parents behind and headed for the border with nowhere to go. The images of Eastern Europe broadcast on TV every day seemed to overlap with the music videos Tanii had seen as a child. “I was seeing the same situation unfold, so I felt that it was up to me to help those who are suffering,” he says.
This is around the time when he saw a news story about student volunteers being dispatched to the neighboring countries of Ukraine. “I couldn’t just stand there doing nothing, so I applied right away," he says. However, when his parents heard about this, they were vehemently opposed. They told him he absolutely could not go anywhere near a war zone. They were worried about what would happen if something went wrong. Concerned for his safety, they refused to let him leave Japan. But Tanii never gave up. “I wanted to help those who are suffering. I couldn't just leave it to someone else and sit on the sidelines. I felt that I had to act immediately," he explains. He continued to make a strong case for his decision to go, and eventually, his parents relented and agreed to let him engage in relief activities.
Some refugees refused assistance
During the approximately two weeks he was involved in relief activities, Tanii spent several days in Austria and the remainder in Poland. At the temporary shelters, he participated in a wide range of activities, from managing and distributing food and other relief supplies, to cleaning, playing with children, and screening people who wanted to apply for refugee status in Japan.
While he was there, however, he encountered something shocking. Some of the refugees refused his help because of the color of his skin. He was disheartened. “Don’t take it personally. There are people like this." These were the words of Brett Day, a staff member of World Central Kitchen* (WCK), who was working at the same time as Tanii. He found that only a few people had that reaction; most of them thanked him for his goodwill. These words of gratitude were what kept him going. He was also encouraged by his friends who, no matter how many times they were rejected, continued to assist the refugees with smiling faces.
“This incident led me to realize that even if you have good intentions, some people may find this to be an unwanted kindness, and you may not always be completely accepted by those you are trying to help. Since then, I made it a point to always check with people before doing anything for them. I made eye contact and smiled as I talked to them, and I treated them politely while considering the difficult situation they are in,” he says. By doing this, people who had initially refused his support started to open up to him gradually. “I was able to witness first-hand how their distrust slowly but surely turned into trust,” he recalls. This experience allowed him to fully understand what it was like to engage in relief efforts in a foreign country.
* A volunteer organization that delivers warm meals to people in disaster-stricken and war-torn areas.
“I want to take action to make those around me happy”
“Before I participated in this relief effort, I imagined that most of the people had been forced to leave their hometowns, had lost family members, and were feeling depressed. Of course, there were people like this, but there were also many who joined in the volunteer effort to support everyone even though they were facing similarly difficult situations,” says Tanii. The words of one 12-year-old boy he met were particularly memorable. He told Tanii that he lost his father during the military invasion and that his older brother had been drafted and he didn’t know where he was. Tanii felt like his heart was going to burst. The boy continued: “But you don't have to worry about me. This terrible thing may have happened to me, but I always keep a smile on my face. As long as I smile, everyone else smiles, and that makes everyone happy, right?”
The boy taught Tanii that no matter how difficult a situation might be, you can take ownership and decide to make those around you happy. “Until now, there were times when I would hesitate to make the first move. But I now know that if you take a broader look at the situation, your worries are quite trivial. You must not be afraid to take the first step. I realized once again that what makes me happy is doing something to make the person right in front of me even just a little bit happier. Like the boy that I met, I want to be able to make those around me happy, especially when times get tough,” he explains. Working in the relief effort in Austria and Poland helped Tanii grow considerably. His mission to make the people around him happy has only just begun.
Atomu Tanii, College of Law, 2nd year
Tanii graduated from Kyoto Prefectural Yamashiro High School. His hobby is calligraphy. His favorite time is when he can shut everything off.
He is now planning to study abroad in the Philippines. His goal is to further improve his English to help him contribute to more relief activities in the future. He would also like to get involved in helping street children in the Philippines.
The necklace in the photo is a memento that a WCK staff member gave Tanii. When he asked for advice, the staff member told him, “If the same thing ever happens again, He will definitely protect you.”