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Fukushima nuns take in orphans

Disaster-hit schools reach out to orphaned children

Fukushima nuns take in orphans
Sakura no Seibo Gakuin Kindergarten was damaged in the Great East Japan Earthquake Disaster special correspondent, Fukushima

June 9, 2011

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In Fukushima City, about 60 kilometers northwest of the ill-fated Daiichi nuclear plant, there is a group of schools called Sakura no Seibo Gakuin (Our Lady of the Sakura Academies). Run by the Catholic Congregation de Notre-Dame, the group’s schools range from kindergarten to a junior college, but during the earthquake on March 11 the damage to the kindergarten rendered it unusable. Now, classes are temporarily being held at the Sakura no Seibo Gakuin Elementary School instead. As of mid-May, around 20 of the original 125 children at the kindergarten enrolled for this year were still unable to attend classes, while two more had left the school altogether. Some of the elementary school’s original 265 students are also missing: six have withdrawn and 27 are on extended leave. These absences heighten financial pressure on the schools, as no school fees are coming from the families of absent children. Sister Kimiko Kawada, principal of the kindergarten and elementary school, said, “We haven’t been able to decide when we should start repairs on the kindergarten, as we’re thinking about the radiation problem and the possibility of more earthquakes. I have been principal for 27 years, but the path ahead is more painfully uncertain now than it has ever been.” The Seibo no Sakura Gakuin junior college finally managed to hold its entrance ceremony on May 10, a month later than originally scheduled. The tsunami killed one of the 184 enrolled students and swept away the homes of 11 others, whose tuition and fees are now being covered entirely by the school. Many problems remain. The college has yet to secure substitute teachers to replace foreign faculty members who resigned and returned home fearing nuclear contamination. It also must work out financial arrangements for tuition, materials and book fees, and what’s best for students who suffered most during the disaster. At the combined junior high and high school, seven students transferred to other schools, while six were added. The latter came from other areas that suffered more devastation; they were supplied with school uniforms by graduates and have received scholarships from the school itself. Despite these strained circumstances, the Congregation de Notre-Dame, in collaboration with the schools, initiated a foster family system on May 23 to provide new homes for minors who have lost their families. For all the orphans, Sakura no Seibo Gakuin will provide a place to learn; additionally, school personnel and other volunteers will serve as foster families. Plans are also under way to open part of the congregation’s convent so that the sisters can offer “parenting” themselves. As it happens, the Congregation de Notre-Dame has a history of taking in orphans; after World War II, the convent became home to 16 war orphans from Tokyo and other places. These children were the reason for the establishment of what is today Sakura no Seibo Gakuin Elementary School. Sister Kayoko Shibata, acting president of the junior college, described the establishment of the foster family program as follows: “We hear that there are 18 children in Fukushima Prefecture alone who lost their families to the disaster. If you include Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures, they say there are more than 100. We have an urgent responsibility to ensure that these children can reach independence and have a future. We as a convent want to return to where we started, taking in the orphans of this disaster and raising them.”

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