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Common Humanity

by Masaaki Taniai
Japan

Masaaki in discussion with Afghan elders
Masaaki in discussion with Afghan elders

Refugees suffer in many ways, but in some ways what disturbs them most is the feeling that the world has forgotten them, that nobody cares about them or needs them. The way I look at it, they are human beings no different from me.

I have been working with AMDA, an NGO which specializes in providing medical assistance to refugees, since 2000. Recently I helped set up and manage our program of medical assistance to Afghan refugees in the Latif Abad and Mohamad Kheil camps in Pakistan, people who had been internally displaced within Afghanistan because of internal conflict and who fled to Pakistan during the U.S. bombing in 2001.

Much of my work involved negotiation with UN agencies, the local government and the refugees themselves. Under me were 30 staff, mostly Afghan and Pakistani people, and three Japanese medical doctors. We provided free assistance, and every day 200 or 300 people would come to the clinic for treatment. Often these people have little understanding of medical issues, so sometimes problems and complaints arose.

These people have been living in camps for a very long time, with no chance to lead a normal productive life. Even though they are not sick, they often demand medicine and injections. Perhaps this is a cry for attention.

Demanding Respect

Thanks to what I have learnt as a Buddhist, I believe in the capability of people. In our clinic we promoted some refugees to work with us--we had five people working as guards or traditional birth attendants. If there were no refugee workers at our clinic, the relationship would just be one way, and aid dependency could easily develop.

Once a stone-throwing mob attacked our clinic, and the next morning no one was waiting in front of the clinic because they were boycotting our assistance. I went to the mosque with our local coordinator where 100 elders were waiting for us, to find out what was wrong.

They asked us, "Why don't the AMDA doctors give us more medicine, and why do they provide the same white medicine to everyone?" They also complained about the attitude of our medical doctors. Because of the vast numbers attending the clinic, each doctor had only one or two minutes per patient. What the elders actually wanted was to voice their complaints and talk with us. They wanted to have a meeting. They wanted respect.

Respect is absolutely crucial. Some aid workers are very arrogant, seeing themselves as superior to the refugees. But as a Buddhist I try never to think that way. I respect them very much.

Finally the elders became very cooperative, and we began to hold regular meetings with them, as well as meetings with the women. We also tried to visit patients at home as the really sick patients cannot come to the clinic on foot.

I was inspired to do this kind of work by seeing how vital NGOs were in the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake in Japan, and by encouragement from SGI President Ikeda that young people should experience the world outside Japan and help others.

Preventing Conflict

Currently, my work involves providing services after war and after refugee influxes. But now I actually want to stop people becoming refugees. Once people become refugees, it is very difficult for them to reintegrate into society. A refugee camp is a very small and claustrophobic community--I don't like people being enclosed like animals in a zoo. Poverty is certainly one of the pressures that causes people to become refugees. Perhaps we should have provided assistance of education and job creation inside Afghanistan during the Taliban period to try to prevent this.

In the future I want to work to prevent war and resolve conflict. When I studied in Sweden, I saw there are many negotiators engaged in conflict resolution. There are maybe few such negotiators from Japan, but this is now my dream, to become a peacemaker. Perhaps that is the best way to build on what I have learned from witnessing the struggles of refugees, amongst the most vulnerable people in the world.

[ Courtesy July 2003 SGI Quarterly ]

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