Helping Japanese tsunami victims back on their feet

Shelter, food, clothes and water - these are the four fundamental items that must be provided to people hit by devastating disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis.

However, Singaporean Robin Low said that while they are critical, what disaster victims really need is help to re-start their businesses.

Mr Low should know. Since joining the Singapore Red Cross in 2001, he has been involved in relief operations in more than 10 countries all over the world, from Sri Lanka to Haiti and to New Orleans in the US.

"The four items are vital, but they only satisfy the immediate needs of survivors," he said. "What they really need is help to operate their businesses again."

"There is usually a mismatch between aid supplies and needs and neither the Red Cross nor local governments have the budget or the means to help families re-start their businesses," he added.

Mr Low, 37, who runs several international businesses, has set up his own volunteer group, Relief 2.0, together with a partner.

One week after the disastrous tsunami hit Japan's Tohoku region last year, he found himself carrying heavy goods in Ishinomaki-city. The area was seriously damaged by the earthquake and tsunami, with thousands of people killed and houses destroyed.

He visited the city intermittently for several months, during which he took many photographs of the aftermath of the disaster.

He recalled: "While I was carrying food supplies to the shelter for 2 km to the victims, I met people whose businesses were destroyed."

They needed financial loans from the banks to reopen their businesses. Unfortunately, such help was not forthcoming from local banks.

Relief 2.0, which now has more than 500 volunteers globally, came up with the idea of showing the photographs of how the disaster affected the people of Ishinomaki to investors in Tokyo.

As a result, it managed to obtain loans for three local retailers - a restaurant, a bicycle store and a florist - to reopen.

Said Mr. Low: "Indeed, what makes the victims confident in getting their lives back to normal is sustainable support. They do not want hand-outs. They want to earn money on their own."

The victims also started making handicraft items to raise funds. Local artists such as Isao Hasegawa began contributing special paintings.

Mr Low had taken hundreds of photos in Ishinomaki city between one week and one year after the disaster. His photographs and art works by Ishinomaki artists would be exhibited at the foyer of Ngee Ann Kongsi Auditorium at NUS University Town, on Friday, Sept 21, from 5pm to 9pm.

The exhibits of photos and artworks are on sale at the event.

Prior to Singapore, the exhibition - organized by Relief 2.0 and supported by Nobel Peace Laureate Professor Yunus - was held in Tokyo and Fukuoka city.

Said Mr Low: "Please come and support the victims. The money raised at the exhibition will go the purchase of materials for the economic recovery of the area."

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