THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
August 25, 2022 at 16:26 JST
A Ukrainian woman, right, plays with her children at a park in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward on Aug. 20. (Nobuo Fujiwara)
Alone inside an apartment house owned by the Tokyo metropolitan government, a Ukrainian woman quietly jots down hiragana characters on a sheet of paper provided by a Japanese language class.
“It took a very long time for me to remember all the characters,” the woman, 45, said.
Her studies of the Japanese syllabary have served as a distraction from the horrors taking place in Ukraine, her frustration at being unable to return home, and a now-broken promise she made when she fled the country.
But she also knows the language lessons may eventually prove beneficial because, like other Ukrainians in Japan, she has no idea when it will be safe enough to return home.
Ukraine just observed its Independence Day and marked the six-month point of Russia’s invasion of the country. Nearly 1,800 Ukrainians have fled to Japan in that half-year period.
BROTHER LEFT BEHIND
The hiragana-studying woman was living in a town near Dnipro in central Ukraine with her older brother and her two youngest children.
In mid-March, after Russia attacked in late February, the woman left Ukraine and arrived in Tokyo, where her oldest daughter, 22, lives with her husband, a Japanese national.
The woman, whose husband died several years ago, took her second daughter, 7, and her son, 4, to Japan.
However, she could not take her brother, 57, who is mentally disabled. She felt guilty about it but had to leave him in Ukraine with her mother-in-law, 77.
“I will be back in two months,” she told them.
She said she never thought her life as an evacuee would be so prolonged.
The woman and her young children initially lived at the oldest daughter’s home. In May, they moved to the public apartment house in Shinjuku Ward because she did not want to inconvenience the daughter and her husband.
With the war continuing to rage in Europe, the 7-year-old daughter started attending an elementary school and soon got used to the Japanese language and lifestyle.
But the 4-year-old son had trouble with the language at a kindergarten and started showing his frustration.
In video calls, the woman noticed that her mother-in-law appeared exhausted from caring for the brother, although they have remained safe.
The woman describes her life in Japan as “pitch-dark” because she does not understand the language and does not really know anybody outside her oldest daughter’s family.
In June, she heard that Dnipro had become an evacuation zone for civilians from Mariupol, a city that has been reduced to rubble in southern Ukraine.
Another bit of news made her heart jump with hope. She learned that the kindergarten that her son attended had resumed operations.
“It’s safe now. I’m going home in the summer,” she thought.
But in late June, a Russian missile strike at a commercial facility in a neighboring state killed many Ukrainian civilians.
Her oldest daughter and son-in-law told her, “Stay in Japan until it becomes clear that the war will be over.”
The woman took their advice and now waits for any sign that the conflict might end.
She has started attending meetings with other evacuees from Ukraine. Speaking with fellow Ukrainians in the same situation lifts her spirits, and she said she always looks forward to the next meeting.
She also started attending a Japanese language class run by Shinjuku Ward twice a week.
“I don’t know when I can return home,” she said about her Japanese lessons. “I can distract myself by staying busy.”
One of her main concerns is her financial prospects.
She is on a one-year program for livelihood support from the Nippon Foundation, a nonprofit organization, but she has no idea where her income will come from after that.
She said she has no confidence that she can find a job in Japan.
“I hope the war is over soon so that I can return to a normal life,” she said.
According to the Immigration Services Agency of Japan, 1,775 Ukrainians had fled to Japan as of Aug. 21.
The central government provides living expenses for six months to those with no relatives in Japan.
The Nippon Foundation in June and July conducted a survey on Ukrainian evacuees, asking them what they needed in terms of aid and support measures in Japan.
According to the results, 65.8 percent of the Ukrainians said they need “Japanese language education” and 55.8 percent cited “job opportunities and job training.”
Only 13 percent of them said they could speak Japanese either very well or to some extent.
(This article was written by Sotaro Hata and Yosuke Watanabe.)
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