By TETSUYA KASAI/ Staff Writer
May 16, 2022 at 07:00 JST
Olga Ruban, left, who has evacuated from Ukraine to Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, plants potatoes with a local farmer in Nihonmatsu on April 13. (Provided by Shinzo Kimura)
A loud roar woke Olga Ruban, who was asleep in her apartment in Kyiv, Ukraine.
“I had no idea what had happened,” the 34-year-old Ukrainian woman said in recalling the morning of Feb. 24.
She turned on a TV to learn that Russia had launched an invasion of her country.
When Ruban started thinking of fleeing her homeland, she reached out for connections with far-flung Japan partly because of the kendo lessons she had taken in Ukraine.
In addition, she also held special feelings for Fukushima Prefecture, which is still rebuilding from the nuclear disaster of 2011 following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
“I felt myself closer to Japan than to Europe,” she said.
Today, Ruban is embarking on a new stage of her life in Fukushima Prefecture, although her thoughts and concerns remain for her parents still in Ukraine.
After the war broke out, Ruban spent a full month shuttling back and forth between her home and a subway station, which served as a shelter, but she was no longer able to continue like that.
She took an evacuation train alone by herself in late March and took refuge in Germany, where a friend lives.
Ruban reflected on her future while she was staying for two days at her friend’s home.
Her parents, who live in a town near the Russian border, chose to stay, saying that it was their homeland and they would never go anywhere else.
KENDO CHANGED HER LIFE
Ruban began learning kendo in Ukraine about seven years ago. She studied under Hiroki Godai, founder of the Kyiv Kendo Federation, who died an untimely death at the age of 44 in 2020.
Ruban visited Japan in 2018 with her kendo colleagues, including Godai.
During the excursion, she watched a tournament at a martial arts venue and participated in friendship training sessions in Tokyo and Osaka. She also took a side trip to a Kyoto temple and elsewhere to experience Japanese culture.
“My affection for Japan began when I met Mr. Godai,” she said. “He opened the door to Japan for me.”
Ruban turned to the secretary-general of the Kyiv Kendo Federation for help and applied for a visa at the Japanese Embassy in Warsaw.
Shinzo Kimura, a radiation hygiene expert who is friends with the secretary-general, arranged for Ruban to be hosted in the city of Nihonmatsu, Fukushima Prefecture.
Kimura is an associate professor with the Fukushima Branch, in Nihonmatsu, of the Dokkyo Medical University Laboratory of International Epidemiology.
“I had never been to Fukushima Prefecture, but I was told that people were returning there following the nuclear disaster and were rebuilding their communities step by step,” Ruban said, adding that she saw a reflection of her own starting over in life.
FINDING KINDNESS IN JAPAN
On April 5, Ruban was one of the 20 Ukrainian evacuees who disembarked from a special Japanese government plane at Haneda Airport in Tokyo. She now lives under the roof of a female farmer in Nihonmatsu and is being supported by donations raised by Kimura and like-minded people.
“All people here are very kind to me,” she said. “I feel as if they were my second family.”
Ruban said she never forgets about her home country even for a moment. She calls her parents every day on the phone, but their conversations are interrupted by bombardments, which are becoming more and more frequent these days. She feels disquieted every time that occurs.
She said she is also worried about a cousin and a friend who are serving in the Ukrainian military.
And she didn’t hide the anger she feels toward the murder of women and children by the Russian armed forces, acts that she calls “genocide.”
Ruban began attending a Japanese language course, eager to quickly become accustomed to her new life in Japan. She has set the goal of becoming a farmer in the future, partly because her parents used to grow vegetables and flowers on a big farm.
She has already had a try at farm work, including by planting potatoes.
“I wish to live here and travel from time to time to Ukraine to see my parents and friends,” Ruban said.
Kimura made acquaintances with residents of Ukraine when he took part in a study on exposure to radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. He has plans for having more Ukrainian evacuees hosted in the days and months to come.
Kimura is calling for more donations through the nonprofit Chernobyl Medical Support Network, where he serves as medical adviser.
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