By Vanessa Miller, The Gazette
Riding on a bus in China one year ago, University of Iowa graduate student Jameela Huq learned that Japan – which she considers like home – had been ravaged by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and massive tsunami.
Huq said she had called her good friend Aya Hurley – a native of Fukushima, Japan who happened to be in the same city in China that day, wanting to meet up. Hurley delivered the devastating news, Huq said.
“She said, ‘I’m looking for my friends and family,’” Huq said. “She was like, ‘Didn’t you hear? A giant tsunami wiped out Fukushima.’”
Huq, a UI graduate student studying science eduation, said her mind flashed to images she spent with Hurley in Fukushima, planting rice, preparing meals and touring the countryside.
“When I got back to America, I looked up all the pictures on Facebook and was like, ‘This place doesn’t exist anymore,’” Huq said. “All the rice I planted doesn’t exist anymore.”
Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, the most devastating quake to ever hit Japan. More than 15,000 people died, 6,011 people were injured and thousands remain missing, according to the Japanese National Police Agency.
The tsunami caused several nuclear accidents, including meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex. Huq, who serves on the board of the UI Japanese Culture Association and spent two years in Japan teaching English, said she keeps in contact with her Fukushima family.
“Things are more normal now, and you can get more normal communication,” Huq said. “But things are still hard for them.”
Huq said the devastation to a place so close to her heart changed her perspective. The UI’s Japanese association, at the time, made origami cranes in accord with the Japanese tradition that the more cranes you make the more wishes you get.
“But it almost felt shallow,” she said. “We felt so unempowered.”
When the tsunami struck, the UI had 12 study abroad students in Japan. Those students were not harmed and decided to stay and complete their program, despite the disaster, said John Rogers, assistant director with the UI’s Office for Study Abroad.
“There were some students waiting to get on planes to go over there, and we wondered whether they or their families would want them to do that,” Rogers said. “But they went, and the students who were there wanted to remain. I think they identified with what the Japanese were going through.”
The UI has not altered its Study Abroad offerings to Japan since the tsunami, but the number of students who have chosen to travel there has dropped. In the fall of 2010, 10 UI students studied abroad in Japan, and in the Spring of 2011 – when the earthquake hit – 12 UI students were studying in Japan.
In the fall of 2011, that number dropped to five UI students in Japan, and just one UI student went to the country through the Study Abroad program this spring, according to Rogers.
It’s unclear whether that drop is related to the Japan earthquake and tsunami, he said. The UI typically sees ebbs and flows in its student interest in the Japanese program.
“It does fluctuate like this from time to time,” Rogers said, adding that the Japanese program director “hasn’t heard from students saying they’re reluctant to go there.”