Muslims in Japan serve up curry for quake-hit Noto residents

Tokyo, 06 April, /AJMEDIA/

A Muslim group in central Japan has been offering curry to victims of the magnitude-7.6 earthquake that hit the Noto Peninsula on New Year’s Day, bringing smiles to the faces of those affected by the disaster.

Every week, Mazen Salim, 49, head of the Toyama Muslim Center, and fellow group members drive several hours from Toyama to Suzu in neighboring Ishikawa Prefecture, one of the areas hardest hit by the January quake, to cook curry for local evacuees, many of whom lost their homes and loved ones, and provide other food items along with daily necessities.

“We live in Japan, we drink Japanese water, and we work in Japan. If something happens in Japan, it is only natural to help people who are suffering,” said Salim, who refers to the center’s volunteer work as a “jihad.” Salim stresses he uses the word not to describe a fight against an enemy of his religion but as a call to help those in need. “It doesn’t matter if they are Muslim or not.”

Salim began visiting Suzu from Jan. 5, just days after the massive quake, which struck while he was visiting Tokyo with his family. As the severity of the damage became more evident, he quickly returned to his home in Toyama before making his way to Noto.

Parts of the roads had collapsed and there had been multiple mudslides. There was also almost no information about which roads were still open. The area was blanketed with snow, resulting in his tires getting caught in holes during the drive.

Gas was in short supply, too, with only a limited number of stations still open. Salim would shift his vehicle into neutral gear when driving down slopes to save fuel. He said it took him almost a day to get to Suzu, located on the tip of the Noto Peninsula, the first time he drove there.

Hot meals have been hard to come by in the quake-hit areas, while some have begun to tire of eating the same food offered at evacuation centers, much of which is canned. He said the specially made curry offers evacuees fresh flavors and variety that they have grown to enjoy.

The curry they make uses spices common in a variety of Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Malaysia, and is prepared by the group’s members, who come from a range of different backgrounds, including children and those with experience working at curry restaurants.

In a questionnaire conducted on evacuees at Shoin elementary school in Suzu, one of the major evacuation centers in the area, the Muslim center’s curry was voted the most popular among the food dishes offered there.

“Not everyone has to do this, but someone has to,” said Salim, who is originally from war-torn Syria. “The Quran says we have to help others, but more than anything else, I find it extremely rewarding when I hear a heartfelt thank you.”

The savory aroma of coffee wafted through the air at a temporary housing complex in Suzu on a recent Monday as Salim and his friends distributed salad, meat dishes and Syrian coffee they had brought from Toyama to give to those housed there.

“This is really helpful,” a 64-year-old woman living in one of the makeshift houses said. “The nearest supermarket is 20 minutes away by car, and many stores are still closed.”

Salim says the word “jihad” is often misunderstood. Non-Muslim people tend to think it has a negative connotation because they associate it with images of terrorists and violence, but the word in Arabic simply means to work toward fulfilling one’s duty, he said.

“Jihad can be many things,” Salim said. “Some people are working on the front line (to rebuild affected areas). We are serving food to evacuees. They are both jihad.”

It is not the first time Salim and his team have traveled to disaster-hit areas to offer victims aid.

Since the Toyama Muslim Center was established about a decade ago, its members have traveled everywhere in Japan where major natural disasters have hit, including Kumamoto Prefecture in 2016 after an earthquake struck and western Japan in the wake of a severe rainstorm in 2018.

Everywhere they have gone, they have offered meals and other necessities to both Japanese and foreigners alike, he said.

He said there can be difficulties specific to Muslim people when evacuations occur in Japan. For example, they often find it difficult to eat food provided at evacuation centers as it may contain pork or other ingredients that are forbidden in Islam.

Due to the importance of washing one’s hands and other parts of the body before daily prayers in Islam, water is also a basic requirement. Furthermore, often there are not many interpreters on hand to explain what is happening during a crisis.

“This quake has served as a lesson for everybody,” Salim said, adding that there is room for improvement concerning how the country communicates important information to its foreign population and how it takes care of people from different cultural backgrounds in times of emergency.

“If Japan is going to become more globalized, it has to understand that there are different religions and cultures in the world and make preparations accordingly,” so as to take better care of its foreign population in such situations, he said.

The number of evacuees has gradually decreased over time, but Salim said he will continue to help out, as he feels it is his obligation until everybody is able to return home.

“We will be there wherever we are needed,” he said.

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