“Young people these days. . .” is an expression that always limits a society’s possibilities. Who ever said there’s an age limit to positive action? Whether young or old, man or woman, everyone should be a collaborator in Sayaka’s WELgee activities. I may be closer to the older end of the spectrum but count me in!
Seiko: I heard you studied in Bangladesh as a university student.
Sayaka: I was studying peace building and development at university and wanted to visit a region with an indigenous population for fieldwork. The program was two weeks long, but I ended up taking time off my studies and staying for two years. After graduation, I was set to go back to Bangladesh on the job for an international support organization, but my trip was canceled because of terrorist attacks in the capital, Dhaka. Instead, I joined a multidisciplinary graduate program in human security at the University of Tokyo, and while a student, I formed a circle of friends and launched WELgee.
Seiko: So your mind was made up all along. You had to make a move and tackle the issue of refugees.
Sayaka: It’s a very complex challenge. If there were a person or organization already working toward a potential solution, I would have joined that cause, and offered my input, and hopefully made a stronger impact. But I couldn’t find an ideal solution in the making, so I decided to make one myself. The biggest focus for me was working with the refugees and solving their problems together. Simply just saving them or supporting them didn’t seem like a solution to me.
Seiko: I’ve interviewed refugee support organizations outside Japan, and from what I’ve seen, the refugees often help out, but they rarely take part in the actual planning. Isn’t that what you mean—come up with ideas together with the refugees, for the refugees?
Sayaka: That’s right. These people have fled persecution and discrimination by their government. They’ve brought their experiences and qualifications from their home countries and are trying to build new lives in Japan. But they don’t know where to start, and all they can do is wait to be recognized as refugees so that they can continue to stay in Japan. This wait is devastating for their mental health. And if they aren’t granted recognition at all, they’re told to return to their home country, but they can’t do that as many of them would face life threating situations. So in reality, they end up living from day to day relying on assistance. This is not a problem that can be resolved by money or staffers alone. The system itself needs to change. We needed to figure out how to change it together with the refugees, otherwise we can’t move forward.
Seiko: The people I’ve talked with who became refugees at a young age say they want to study. They are very aware of how the system works. Without an education, they have no way out of social isolation.
Sayaka: In the early days after we started WELgee in 2016, all we did was search for hints to a solution day in, day out. We wandered around Shibuya Station and in the underground passage of Azabu-juban after the last train of the day, looking for refugees and asking them to share their stories.
Seiko: And then? How did you take the next step forward?
Sayaka: We forged paths to get the refugees integrated into life in Japan, like by helping them learn the Japanese language, and for those seeking an education, by looking for opportunities to attend Japanese university and find scholarships. Refugees come from all walks of life. There are lawyers, doctors, athletes. We also look for partner companies that see potential in those careers and skills and arrange ideal matches where the company hires a refugee for business growth. No two people have the same professional background, you know.
Seiko: When the Japanese hear the word refugees, they tend to picture people clothed in rags running away for their lives. Sure, there may be refugees like that too. But it seems the Japanese are too oblivious to realize that everyone has unique circumstances.
Sayaka: The Japanese word for refugee, nanmin, doesn’t help either. It has lost the sense of evacuation and displacement and ended up with the characters meaning “difficult people.” At WELgee, we call our members ‘Internationals’.
Seiko: What is the biggest project you’re working on now?
Sayaka: We’re working on a career program. There are two reasons. One, having an exciting and rewarding job is a great way for refugees to integrate into society. And the other—visa. Foreign nationals need some kind of justification for staying in Japan, like a student visa sponsored by their university, or a dependent visa sponsored by their spouse. Since refugees don’t have any sponsors, they are granted a special visa under the government’s refugee recognition system. The problem is that after an average wait of four years and four months, only 1% of applicants are recognized as refugees.
Seiko: If it were me, I couldn’t keep up my motivation for so long. I would start feeling miserable.
Sayaka: One day, an idea came to me. If the system won’t grant refugee status to everyone who needs it, then why don’t we broaden the scope of visas that refugees can apply for? There are 29 types of visa in all. We scrutinized each of them and narrowed our target to just one with the long name “Engineer / Specialist in Humanities / International Services.” This visa is granted to foreign nationals who are hired as technical workers. The idea was that if we could get private companies to be sponsors, we might be able to count work visa as a potential solution.
Seiko: Brilliant! I’m impressed you thought of that.
Sayaka: So we started out by visiting companies together with the Internationals. To date, we’ve matched nineteen people with companies, and five of them have completed the switch to work visas. Those Internationals are no longer just waiting to be granted refugee status. They can invite their families to come and live with them. They can travel outside Japan on business. They have hope for regaining their freedom.
Seiko: It makes you want to support those sponsor companies, maybe by buying their products. I mean, who doesn’t want to feel the pride of taking part in the solution?
Sayaka: That’s an important point, isn’t it? If the only solution available were recognition of refugee status, people would feel as if they couldn’t help unless they were a lawyer or member of a support organization.
Seiko: It’s also amazing that you’ve accomplished so much in the space of five or six years. Isn’t that fast?
Sayaka: We had a lot of help from all kinds of people—seasoned administrative scriveners and lawyers, companies, and above all, the refugees taking on our challenge together—the Internationals. After being betrayed by their own government or captured by military forces, it’s very difficult for refugees to trust anyone new. They all say there was some skepticism at first. Is it safe to trust WELgee? What do they want? If we had called for participants in a system that WELgee made from scratch, without the help of the Internationals, they probably wouldn’t have wanted to work with us.
Seiko: How many staffers does WELgee have?
Sayaka: We have four full-time staff members, plus dozens of collaborators including part-time career coordinators, pro bono contributors who volunteer their professional services, and monthly supporters we consider part of the WELgee family.
Seiko: I’d love to be part of that family too.
Japanese Fika Table
Tea | Nyembwa Lubutshia
This tea is from Sayaka’s husband’s home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Steep for about 3 minutes and enjoy piping hot. The Congolese prefer their tea sweetened with dollops of honey. Sayaka recommends taking it straight.
Sweet | Local confectionery from Binowa Café
Besan Ladoo (left) are Indian balls of dough mixed with nuts and raisins. Shekerbura (right) are Azerbaijan’s most popular sweet pastries.
Flower | An arrangement inspired by the guest’s lovely smile
The lilac flowers of false anemone with purple fountain grass native to Africa and the Middle East evoke the autumnal charm of Chinese silver grass. Vase by LA-based ceramic artist tomoropottery.
Sayaka Kankolongo Watanabe, Founder, NPO WELgee
Sayaka Kankolongo Watanabe was born 1991 in Shizuoka Prefecture. As a university student, she visited Bangladesh for fieldwork. The experience of being caught up in a clash in a conflict area moved her to take time off her studies and return to the country, where she engaged in support activities by joining a peacebuilding project as an intern with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). After graduating from university, Watanabe enrolled in the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and completed the master’s course of its Graduate Program on Human Security. Together with her circle of refugee friends, she established WELgee in 2016. Their latest project is Job Copass, a career program that matches the expertise and experience of refugees who have fled their home countries and arrived in Japan with Japanese companies, and to continue accompanying and supporting the processes of training, recruiting, and retention.
Born 1961 in Tokyo, Seiko Ito is an author and creator who works in a spectrum of expressive genres including literature, film, stage, music, and online platforms. His latest publications include Gaza Strip, West Bank and Amman: Report of Médecins Sans Frontières (Kodansha) and Fukushima Monologue (Kawade Shobo Shinsha). “Tohoku Monologue” is currently being released in serial format in Kahoku Shimpo (Kahoku Shimpo Publishing) and Bungei (Kawade Shobo).