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Hawaii-Japan exchange program offers Maui students hope after wildfires

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(NEW YORK) — Students from Hawaii who were impacted by the wildfires on Maui traveled 4,000 miles to Japan to learn from the community there how residents recovered from their own devastating disaster.

Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has helped fund a program called “Kibou for Maui,” which is being implemented by the U.S.-Japan Council. Kibou means hope in Japanese. The program aims to engage, inspire and empower the youth affected by the Lahaina wildfires that tore through the area in August 2023.

The program is designed to help youth from Lahaina lead a long-term recovery process that involves physical, mental and spiritual aspects and contributes to the betterment of their community.

Eleven students from Lahaina high schools traveled to Higashimatsushima, Miyagi, Japan, on March 17 to gain insights into the city’s recovery process after a deadly earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Miku Narisawa, co-founder of Odyssey Nature Japan and a survivor of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, was the driving force behind the trip.

The 11 students from Maui were hand-selected and coached by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii.

“When I saw the wildfires, I immediately said, ‘OK, this is something that I, we, should do for the kids in Lahaina,"” Narisawa told ABC News.

Similar to the students from Lahaina, Narisawa’s hometown was destroyed by the earthquake and the tsunami that soon followed.

The earthquake and tsunami caused the deaths of tens of thousands of people, devastated entire towns and led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster 85 miles away.

Narisawa was 12 years old when she survived the earthquake by evacuating with hundreds of others to the third floor of her elementary school. She told ABC News her family lost their home and, along with other families, lived without electricity and running water for nearly two months. 

“We lived with my grandparents for a month,” Narisawa said. “We [had] to relocate to a temporary housing and we lived there for two years.” 

She says that day changed her life forever.

Now, 13 years later, she is trying to give hope to young students who faced a similar disaster.

“I want them to know that experiencing the wildfire was tough, I’m sure, but that it’s not the end of the world, and that’s not, you know, the end of everything,” Narisawa said.

The Kibou for Maui program is similar to “Tomodachi Rainbow for Japan Kids,” a program Narisawa participated in for Japanese kids. Narisawa and 150 Japanese children traveled to Hawaii for rest, healing and physical/psychological relief after the earthquake.

According to the Tomodachi website, the Tomodachi Rainbow program aims to foster long-term friendships with Hawaii’s children through outdoor activities and camping in the state’s natural beauty.

While participating in the program, Narisawa met Yoh Kawanami, a volunteer from Hawaii. The two met in 2011 and became good friends. Kawanami is now a board member for USJC

“When you have a role model who actually has walked the talk — she is a survivor, and now she’s a leader — nothing should stop the 11 students, the Maui students, from feeling the same way,” Kawanami said. “Having Miku in front of that is a true example of what hope could be for these students.”

While in Japan, the students met individuals who assured them they were not alone in their journey, and that their town could rebuild. They also got a glimpse of how the town once was compared to how it looks today.

“It’s very hard to tell that a tsunami happened here,” Sabrina, one of the 11 students, said. “It’s so beautiful, you know? You would, you would have never thought something like that happened. And I’m hoping that it’ll be the same for us.”

One student shared that the experience gave her hope for the future of her hometown in Hawaii. Seeing firsthand how a city can flourish again after a disaster boosted her optimism.

“It kind of gives us hope for Lahaina,” Cece said. “Because, you know, they were talking about how everything was underwater and seeing back home just everything’s burnt right now. To see there is hope and it can come back, flourish and have life again.”

The students visited an oyster farm, destroyed during the disaster, that’s now wholly centered on sustainability. 

“In the ocean we had a lot of pieces of house, pieces of building, floating back to the ocean. So that was really the hardest part for the fisherman, cause they had to clean up,” Narisawa told the students.

“That really, like, struck a chord to me ’cause it really shows that, like, if you don’t give up and you keep persevering… you can return things to back to what they were,” Taika Swearinger said.

They also visited Onagawa, which was heavily damaged in the tsunami, to learn how they recovered following the earthquake and tsunami.

“I found it very interesting how they decided to rebuild,” Zean, one of the 11 Lahaina students, said. “While some areas decided to build a sea wall, Onagawa decided to divide the town into levels. This made me realize that we need to think strategically when it comes to rebuilding our hometown.”

Chaperones from the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii encouraged the students to apply lessons learned in Japan when they return home.

The Maui students said that they gained knowledge and hope from their weeklong visit.

Lahaina student Shiela shared that she was caught up in the pessimism that Lahaina would not be able to rebuild and recover. 

“I’m actually ashamed to say this, but I also thought it was impossible ’cause after the fire, after seeing my house, I was kind of hesitant,” Shiela said. “But this trip really gave me hope and I thought if I got a spark of hope, I think my community will also.”

Lahaina student M Jee also shared her optimism. 

“Even if we come out of a tragedy that destroyed many of our daily lives, there’s still hope for us to recover. There’s still hope for a better future,” he told ABC. “So kibou, hope for a better future. That’s what it means to me.”

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