Our Au Pair is from Tokoyo and her world has fallen apart. How can we help?

by cv harquail on March 13, 2011

Dear Au Pair Mom-

I’m sure that we are not alone with this concern, and we’d love some ideas how to help: Our au pair is from a town about 25 miles southeast of Tokyo (further aware form the center of the earthquake). She is terribly worried about her family and friends after the earthquake, and now with the fears about a nuclear emergency she worries that there is more horror to come. She has connected with her parents and sister online, briefly, and knows that they are okay and that most of her extended family is okay– she feels both lucky and blessed, since she knows that so many people from her university and her neighborhood may have had terrible experiences and losses.

She is very worried about what is going on in Japan, and wants to go home – immediately. My DH and I would be happy (not happy, really, but okay) with it if she needed to return home for a funeral, or to help her family with some emergency. But we are not sure whether her going back to Japan right now is a good decision. Currently, there isn’t a specific need for her to go home. She just says she wants to go home, in part because she can’t stand the idea of being so far away if something else happens.


We have talked with her about just what she might do if she went home, and how there isn’t much that she can actually do except perhaps add to her parents’ concerns about her safety and how to take care of her. It seems like everything is in turmoil, so even if or when she could get a flight back to Japan, it’s unclear that her return there ‘helps’.

On the other hand, and this sounds horrible, but we wonder if she wants to go back home asap so that she can be a part of things? To experience this event in her home country along with her countrymen? When something so serious and profound has happened in your country, would you want to stay here in the USA caring for two kindergartners and shopping at the mall?

What do your readers think that we should say to her? How can we be supportive?

We would really appreciate your thoughts here.


Yes Dads Do This Too March 13, 2011 at 9:05 pm

She may not know why she wants to go back, but odds are that it is simply because she doesn’t know what she can do to help. In her mind, she probably (even subconsciously) thinks she can help if she is there. I would let he know that the best thing she can do for her family is to stay where she’s safe – here. If it were my daughter, I would thank God every day knowing that she was safe and sound a half a world away. Not understanding her culture, I may very well be wrong, but that is certainly the approach that I would take. If she wants to be involved, perhaps you can help her do some fund-raising or think up some way to provide for the needy (a clothing drive?)

Taking a Computer Lunch March 13, 2011 at 9:47 pm

I would encourage her to call her parents and ask for their opinion and agree to abide by their decision. The earthquake is a traumatic event and she should be encouraged to connect with her family and friends as she is able. I would also encourage her to contact your LCC (and you do as well, voicing your own concerns). If as YDDTT above has indicated, what she really needs is to be empowered to fund-raise, then your LCC might engage other APs from the cluster to assist (our own cluster did several fund-raising as well as food-kit building events for the earthquake victims in Haiti last year). Is she religious? Then her church or temple may be sponsoring events as well.

Meanwhile, talk to your kindergartners about what happened in your APs country. Show them a map and a few pictures without people in them. Explain that the storm was very powerful and that it makes your AP feel very sad. (My 10-year-old and I spent half an hour going through the newspaper, discussing the good and bad that comes from natural disasters, and discussing fault lines.)

Ask your AP what you can do to help Japan and give her space to grieve while she decides how to live her life (it may come to pass that your agency couldn’t get her tickets home right now even if they wanted to – even if the airports are open, they may be filled with aid-workers).

ap March 13, 2011 at 10:13 pm

I sort of agree that there isn’t much she can do going back home now, and maybe the smartest thing to do is to stay where it is safe…but can we imagine what is going on inside of her head? I know for a fact that whenever something is going wrong with my family in my home country, it gets harder to concentrate on the kids or on the tasks I have to do. I can’t imagine working properly with my mind on such an intense situation.
And just thinking about it, what if something really bad happens and she loses her parents/ family members? Would you find a way to let her be with you family in the US forever, or would you send her back home after her year is done?
I would do what TACL suggested: let her parents decide it for her.

aria March 14, 2011 at 7:34 am

I agree with TACL and ap- encourage her to ask her parents for their opinion and let them decide together.

Calif Mom March 14, 2011 at 9:52 am

I have professional experience with earthquake response, and personal experience with living in and having family in disaster zones, both while I was there and while I was not living there. I would love to hear from other Red Crossers, current or former, who have stories and perspective on this au pair’s situation.

In no particular order:

* It’s much too early to pack a bag. The disaster is still unfolding. It is not yet a safe place to be. Really big aftershocks–aftershocks that would be devastating and make big news if they were primary quakes–will continue for days if not weeks, causing more damage.

*Until the situation is more stable, she will not be able to enter. The planes going into Japan right now are full of the people who have the skills and experience and equipment to really help: disaster relief workers, engineers, those who know how to organize massive response organizations. Responding to a disaster requires building a massive “corporation” overnight.

*I completely understand her visceral drive to return home. It’s where her heart is. She wants to help. She can’t bear the thought of her family dealing with this without her. At about an au pair’s age, my hub and I drove INTO an earthquake area, watching traffic streaming in the direction we had come because we knew we had the skills that were needed and felt absolutely compelled to be there. To not lend our skills and experience would have felt like committing a crime. But we had skills and training–and even equipment–in our trunk. We were not going into a disaster area and adding to the burden. For her to return right now, or even in the next week or so, would add to the burden of those trying to stabilize the situation. For now, she helps her countrymen the most by staying here.

*With increasing rolling blackouts, she’s going to have an exceptionally difficult time reaching her parents for quite awhile, even though they are outside the most-damaged zone at this point. I’m not sure it’s a great idea to put the burden of this decision on her and her parents; until technology infrastructure gets stabilized, or they bring in banks of satellite phones, she may not have a lot of time or characters (if texting) to have that kind of a conversation.

*That said, if she can have some sort of a meaningful conversation with her folks, that is a good idea.

* Please don’t encourage a clothing drive until and unless it is requested by relief organizations who have the logistics support to store, sort and distribute clothing. Clothing drives quickly mushroom out of control and are very expensive way to distribute relief to those who need it. Cash really is better.

*FWIW, the Japanese Red Cross really is one of the strongest groups in the International Red Cross Movement. Please vett the organizations you decide to donate to. Charity Navigator is a good, impartial, thorough reviewer of charities. Smaller groups may have less overhead, but disaster response really does require a certain amount of already-in-place structures, like contracts and relationships with partner organizations and suppliers in order to be efficient and respond quickly. I’m not saying that smaller groups aren’t a super important part of disaster response, but scalability is really important in the early days.

* Disaster response efforts are never perfect. Things will go wrong. People will suffer and won’t get food or water or hygiene needs taken care of fast enough. The scale of this is so enormous that there will be horrible stories of suffering for weeks ahead of us. This will be very painful to hear about, and will be incomprehensible to us who are not there on the ground.

* The Japanese au pairs probably will need to DO something. Fundraising is a great idea. If she is uncomfortable asking for money (many are!) perhaps she could volunteer her translation skills? I will try to find out today about the ARC’s safe and well program, and whether they need volunteers. This is something she could do while she stays here, safe, and waits to be able to go back.

* I think the host family should expect her to return to Japan, but not right away. I know this makes your life tumultuous, too, the not knowing about timing, but unless she and her parents are very strong about her staying and fininshing her year (which they may be), and she is OK with that, I would want to fully support whatever the au pair needs to do. It feels absolutely wrong to tell her at this point that she should finish her year because she committed to it.

* Definitely contact the LCC; the agencies *should* be doing something to support the au pairs. Access to crisis counseling should be provided as needed.

* She might find a group of like-minded and similarly affected young Japanese people at a college or university nearby. Getting involved in such a group would offer her support and an outlet for her drive to help in the activities they will undoubtedly begin work on. Great friendships are often made in times of disaster.

* If she is a self-starter, she might organize a relief fundraising effort through your kids’ schools. I bet the Principal will be hearing from Japanese-American parents who want to do something at the the school, and they might be able to use her help. This would be good for her to involve your kids, too. (Obviously, if they are babies this is not a useful idea.)

* Host parents’ job right now is to be supportive, keep communication open, try to not freak out your kids, and keep a consistent schedule. Your au pair needs a consistent schedule now, too, so try to do anything you can to make sure she gets enough sleep and doesn’t change her own eating patterns too much. The time change is an insultingly difficult issue in all of this.

*Our conversation would be something like this:

” We know you want to go back home, and we understand that feeling and totally support your decision. But events are still unfolding. There are aftershocks that are still very big (find the Richter number on the latest one and throw that in there.) It’s not safe yet to go home. Don’t take up the seat on a plane of a disaster worker. Don’t be a burden on the infrastructure, which is not yet stable. You don’t want to take food and water away from those who need it. Wait here with us, we will help you find a way to help your people in Japan while you are here. Now is the time for waiting, and it is going to be hard, but we will wait with you and do everything we can to help.”

Keep us posted! I hope this helps a little….

Calif Mom March 14, 2011 at 10:05 am

Sorry, I missed that the kids were in kindergarten. I think putting her energy into organizing some sort of helpful project at the school would be fabulous and good for your children.

I still have a few drawings and paintings that children across the country drew after the East Bay Hills Fire in 1991. (I had no intent of being a parent at that time!) Teachers across the country had spontaneously done a very smart thing and had their classes do a little art therapy, and then sent stacks of letters and drawings to the Red Cross. We posted them around the facilities that affected families and Red Cross staff were using. Those drawings meant SO MUCH to the families who had lost their homes and loved ones, and also the relief workers! It lifted our hearts when we were utterly exhausted and the news had died down and it felt like we’d never get back up the mountain, that the mountain itself had betrayed us. Recovering from disasters is a very long haul, and little glimpses of humanity and caring from caring strangers living a long way away really are significant.

Anonamomma March 14, 2011 at 10:16 am

Calif Mom,

Fabulous advice. I also loved your idea (at least I think it was you – in an earlier post) to do a 911 plan with family & friends (in the hope that you never have to use it)

All my prayers and good wishes to anyone effected by this tragedy.

cv harquail March 14, 2011 at 11:23 am

Wow, Calif Mom– so glad to have your experience to share with this family & Au Pair. The family is pretty clear that they’ll do whatever the Au Pair wants/needs…. and the additional details in your comment offer some real information, to suggest that if she wants to go back, she might begin planning now– but not actually return for several weeks.

Also, thanks everyone for the suggestions regarding the kids. Although the OP didn’t mention concerns about the kids (she was focused on the AP) this is CERTAINLY an issue to talk about with all children– and a way to get them involved in caring for others.

Jeana March 18, 2011 at 12:00 am

California Mom had awesome suggestions. When China had the very bad earthquake several years ago, I had to awaken our Chinese aupair, tell her what had happened, and hand her the phone to try to reach her family. It took numerous attempts, but our aupair was able to reach her parents and confirm that they were okay. I was honest with my children, told them what had happened, and that Dikun, our aupair, would need lots of extra loving and support from us. I made contact with several of our friends, as I left for work, and asked them to check on Dikun, that first day. One friend came over and spent time with her, another sent flowers, and others dropped off cards and sent e-mails. Dikun and her family were very touched by everyone’s attempts to express their sorrow for what had happened, and their support for her and her family. I encouraged multiple calls a day, as there were many, many aftershocks, and for many weeks. I asked several times a day how Dikun’s family was, and never tried to avoid talking about what had happened. Dikun’s neighbors were sleeping in the street, as they were fearful of another big earthquake. She was from Chengdu, and there were many things being done in her community, to support the victims. We really tried to give Dikun as much love and support as possible. Through her repeated calls to her family, she was able to confirm, as the days went on, that they were okay. I was absolutely amazed at how well Dikun managed this very sad and stressful time for herself and her family. I would really hope that the agency would reach out to the aupairs from Japan, to express their concern and support.

Calif Mom March 18, 2011 at 9:43 am

Hi Jeana! I was wondering if that quake had happened while you were au pairing b/c I remembered stories of your wonderful APs from China.

What an awful experience for everyone. Very thoughtful of you to have friends check in on her when you had to go to work. You say you were surprised how well she handled the crisis, but give yourself a little credit for that! As you know, with a solid support network people can handle a LOT.

Comments on this entry are closed.