Japanese teacher vows to fight for Kurdish refugees’ cause

TokyoNow: Japanese teacher vows to fight for Kurdish refugees’ cause

KAWAGUCHI, Japan, Feb. 10 Kyodo

Fumio Azuma distinctly remembers the shame he felt when he learned about the plight of his two Kurdish students, Hatice and Mercan Kazankiran, the day they came to school sunburned and worn-out.

”I knew before that they were financially tight, but I never fully grasped how bad their situation as asylum-seekers was until they staged a sit-in before the United Nations University,” he says.

Azuma teaches the Japanese language to the Kurdish girls at an evening high school in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture.

It was during the sweltering days of July last year when the Kazankiran family, together with another Kurdish family, launched a sit-in before the university premises in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward in protest of Japan’s refusal to grant them refugee status and also in strong hopes the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, the U.N.’s refugee agency, which has an office in the university, would act on it.

Azuma became involved in the Kazankirans’ case from the much-publicized 72-day sit-in from July 13 to Sept. 22 initially out of sympathy for his students’ family and later due to his conviction about his society’s injustice toward asylum-seekers.

”The two (girls) have never been absent from class since they entered in April 2004 but there was always one day every month when they came to school with gloomy and fearful looks — that was the day they had to renew their provisional release status.”

Azuma, who heads the support group for the family, led a campaign to collect by December more than 63,000 signatures seeking that the government give them fair treatment.

Their fears were not unfounded. On Jan. 18, the girls’ father, Ahmet, and their eldest brother, Ramazan, were deported, only a day after they were detained at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau facility when they went to renew their provisional release status.

Provisional release allows the family to stay in Japan temporarily but offer them no stable legal status. They always have to ask permission from the immigration officials to go to places outside Saitama and need to renew their status every month, always with the possibility that they can be detained or deported.

When news broke about the deportation of the two in a Jan. 18 press conference by the remaining Kazankiran family members — Hatice, Mercan, their older sister, Zeliha, mother Safiye and other brother, Mustafa — Azuma was devastated.

”Are 60,000 signatures not enough? Would it have been enough if it had been 1 million? What else should we have done?” he asked.

The deportation made headlines because the two were the first-ever U.N.-recognized refugees in Japan to be deported.

Azuma’s genuine concern and affection for his students does not go unreciprocated.

Hatice, 17, and Mercan, 16, agree that they have found a one-of-a-kind teacher in Azuma.

”I was so touched when he visited us during the sit-in to show support and especially when he suggested making a petition for collecting support signatures and made the draft for our petition,” Hatice says.

Azuma, 46, handles a class of 20 which includes Hatice, Mercan and several other students of foreign nationality.

”Unlike other foreign students who tend to be timid among Japanese students, the two girls are very cheerful, assertive, inquisitive and eager to learn,” he said.

Azuma, who has taught at the school for 11 years, believes the two girls are an ”advantage to the school,” saying that a diverse class is an opportunity to learn from each other’s unique cultures and motivate each other.

”For instance, Hatice and Mercan speak up and ask questions until they thoroughly understand the subject at hand…the two also made their world geography class interesting because of their insights and input,” he says.

He maintains this view despite pressure from the school and education authorities.

”They tell me indirectly to refrain from such activities (to help the Kazankirans) but then, the cause involves the life and human rights of my students,” Azuma says. ”I just cannot turn a blind eye.”

Now in his 23rd year of teaching, Azuma says he feels responsible for creating a Japanese society that is apathetic to the struggles of the downtrodden such as the refugees, in light of Japan’s strict refugee policy.

Immigration statistics show only 10 people were recognized as refugees in 2003. No Kurdish asylum-seeker has been granted refugee status despite the fact that they comprise one of the largest numbers of refugee applicants.

”For now, we are working toward reuniting the Kazankiran family in a third country,” says Azuma, reflecting the family’s wish to be together again.

Hatice and Mercan say they had all been living apart and only reunited in Japan in 2003 when they came to Japan. They came to Japan separately in the mid-1990s to flee the persecution of the Kurdish ethnic minority in Turkey.

Perception is strong that the sit-in has irked the Japanese government and prompted them to single out their family in what supporters believe is an apparent warning to others who might make similar protests.

Hatice and Mercan stress they have no regrets.

”I am glad we did it. We did nothing wrong,” says Hatice. ”We did it believing that something may change in our and other refugees’ situation.”

Hatice dreams of becoming a diplomat to help people in need. Mercan wants to be a lawyer for the same reason.

Furthermore, the sit-in has offered the teenage girls an opportunity to meet and mingle with many Japanese people.

”We have been touched by the kindness and goodwill we have seen in many Japanese people who empathized with our cause,” Hatice says. ”Despite what we have gone through, if and when we leave Japan, it will be sad to leave these people, people like our teacher Azuma.”

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