During their family reunion last month, sixty young-adult refugees from Burma joined Ann Takasaki’s extended family for an evening of food, friendship, and shared experience. She explained, “I wanted these young refugees to understand that their story was similar to ours, and that they have a great future in store.” Ann, a native of Utah and a third generation Japanese American, spoke with great emotion, “You can’t imagine what these refugees have been through. They’ve lost everything – endured the greatest deprivations. And now they are here hoping to rebuild their lives. I wanted them to know that in a small way, we had once been where they are now, and that there was hope.”
Photo of Ann’s parents and Grandparents
Ann speaks openly about her family’s own experience as refugees in Japanese internment camps during World War II. Ann’s parents, who were young adults at the time, met, married, and had their first child (Ann’s older brother) in an internment camp. “It was an incredibly difficult time for my parents. They never spoke of it when we were growing up. It was only after we were adults that they began to open up to us about their wartime experiences.” One story her parents shared took place as they were being taken by train from the warm coast of California to the bitter chill of upper Wyoming. Halfway through the journey, as the train slowly climbed a mountain pass (the train was almost at a standstill because of the steep incline), a frantic knock was heard on the side of their train car. As they opened the blinds, they could see a Japanese woman running beside the train with her arms full of coats and blankets. Throwing them up through the windows she called breathlessly, “You don’t know what it is like where you are going – you must take these!” Though they never learned who she was, the memory of this woman’s kindness during such a dark time was something they would never forget.
Photo of Wyoming Japanese Internment Camp during WWII
Ann explained that, while planning the family reunion, the story of the woman with the coats echoed in her mind. Another earlier experience that year also kept coming to her mind. Ann was at the United Nations with Susan Roylance, an advocate for the family for over 30 years. In Utah, Susan was working with refugees from Burma and invited two of these refugees to come to the United Nations and tell others how family solidarity helped them be resilient in a time of crisis. Ann could never forget their story and always had in the back of her mind the goal to do something to help these refugees. She called Susan and asked her what the refugees needed most. Susan told her that their greatest need is friendship and mentoring. She said they are given clothing but most of it doesn’t fit – it’s mostly too large for their small frames. As Ann thought about her upcoming family reunion and her parents’ experience, she realized that her family could offer friendship to these Burmese refugees and clothes that fit! Like the woman with the coats and blankets, their family could reach out to the refugees from Burma to offer kindness.
Ann’s family with Burmese Refugees
So that evening at the Inouye family reunion, ninety of Ann’s family welcomed these sixty young-adult Burmese refugees and their adult leaders. The Inouye family had gathered many boxes of clothing and had prepared lots of food for everyone. “We broke the ice by teaching them our family soran bushi (warrior dance).” After a meal of Japanese curry, they held a special program where each group shared individual stories of their refugee experience. With emotion thick in her voice, Ann recalled, “We shared our family’s stories as refugees in internment camps in World War II. Then one of the young men from the refugee group arose to speak. He explained that their indigenous tribe, the “Karen,” was targeted for extermination by the Burmese government. When the killing raids would come, the villagers would flee into the thick forests surrounding their burning villages. With their villages destroyed, their only hope was to attempt to reach safety in Thailand. Their fear of discovery by the soldiers was so great that some mothers had to suffocate their babies to avoid giving away the group’s location. This young man had seen this happen. Most of these young people had been in the Thailand refugee camps for several years before arriving in Utah.”
Ann’s family with Burmese Refugees
Ann remembered the complete silence in the room after hearing of the horrors the refugees had experienced. Her niece was the first to break the silence as she said: “We can never be as great as you can be because we have not experienced what you have experienced. Your experience has given you power. You have the power to do anything and to be anything you want.” The closing words of the evening by the family were ones of hope. “Our parents and grandparents stood where you are now. They were refugees like you. But look at our family now – two, three, and four generations past the crisis. Your life can be a legacy for your posterity as our forbearers’ lives have been a legacy for us.”
The next day, the family made 100 “clean birth kits” for a non-profit group called Serve-a-Village. The kits include very simple components to assist in childbirth, such as a razor blade and sterile gloves. They will be distributed to villages in Kenya to help decrease infant and maternal mortality.
In reflecting on her 2016 family reunion Ann commented, “Incorporating service into our family reunion made the reunion more meaningful and helped us remember the great blessings that our family has received. My father always reminded us, ‘Where much is given; much is required.’” She ended by saying, “I think that being a member of Big Ocean helps women to realize that their everyday actions are dispelling the darkness around them and combating the threat against family, faith, motherhood, and womanhood. We just need to become more conscious, intentional, and deliberate.”