14.02.2012 - ODG

Solidarity in Sendai, from primary school to university

©UNESCO/Cynthia GuttmanUNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova with the students of the relocated Nakano elementary school, Sendai, Japan, 14 February 2012.

The children of Nakano elementary school are nature lovers. Bird watching and environmental projects along the adjacent river plains near the ocean front were a feature of classroom activities until the earthquake and tsunami struck on 11 March 2011. Within hours, their school was ripped apart and the playground strewn with cars and debris from surrounding houses. All students and their teachers found safety on the roof terrace, but their school still lies in ruins.

Director-General Irina Bokova witnessed both the destruction and the recovery underway during a visit to this member of UNESCO’s Associated School Network in Sendai on 14 February 2012. The school has been relocated since the tsunami.

“You are part of a network of schools all over the world,” the Director-General said to one class. “I know you have passed difficult times. I would like to congratulate you. You have found the strength to overcome difficulties.  Tomorrow, you will become teachers, doctors, engineers, professors. You have to work hard for this, but what is most important is to continue dreaming.”

UNESCO’s Kizuna campaign, which led to 30,000 messages of friendship from students around the world being sent to their peers in the devastated areas, reached Nakano School, where several bright up the corridor walls.

“I lived in a shelter for four months with my family,” said Rikko, reading a message to the Director-General. “I was very uncertain about the future. Many people came to encourage us. UNESCO and the world were there to support us when we thought we had lost everything.”

“Smiles are coming back on the children’s faces and we are grateful to UNESCO for its support and solidarity,” said the school principal Mr Mitsuru Takahashi.  “After the earthquake, we had to postpone environmental studies. We started a program of mental care to study in the classroom. Our goal is to make every student able to live their daily school life in a stable condition and sound environment.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Ms. Bokova visited Tohoku University, one of Japan’s leading institutions. Here research equipment, libraries and utilities were damaged, but the university also turned adversity into solidarity.  “We are setting up a new international research institute on disaster science to conduct outcome-oriented research, share experiences internationally and promote cooperation in disaster science,” said the University’s Vice president Mr Yukihisa Kitamura.  The institute takes a comprehensive approach to disaster science, encompassing scientific, medical and social aspects.

The Director-General welcomed this initiative, asserting that UNESCO has a role to play in facilitating networks in the area of risk preparedness and capacity-building.

Tohoku University holds special significance for UNESCO, since it was here that the first UNESCO club was created in 1947, four years before Japan joined UNESCO in 1951. “Japan’s engagement with UNESCO has always been guided by the commitment to build solidarity in adversity. It has reflect what I see as an essential humanism – a belief in the possibility of positive change through the will to work , to join forces, to build bridges.”

Ms. Bokova went on to receive a warm welcome at the Sendai UNESCO Association, birthplace of a movement of non-governmental UNESCO activities in Japan soon after the first Club was created. “I know how committed you are. Together, students, intellectuals, citizens from different walks of life started what I think was a historic movement.  It makes UNESCO stronger.” Speaking to a young university student who is vice manager of the Association, she emphasized that “you can change the world by daily things that may seem simple but they have impact. Today, young people are changing their societies before our eyes. Without civic engagement, we cannot change the world for the better.”

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