University Student Rallies International Community in Donation Drive

Sendai has shown - especially in the wake of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake - that in times of adversity, it is a city that comes together to help each other. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, a student at Tohoku University has launched an initiative to encourage members of Sendai's international community to support their home away from home.

Trishit Banerjee, a student at the Graduate School of Science, said he came up with the idea of an international community donation drive in April, when he heard about the Japanese government's cash handout to help the country cope with the impact of COVID-19. As a scholarship student, Banerjee wanted to donate his share of the handout to people who are struggling financially, and thought that there may be others who felt the same way.

Together with Justin Velgus, an American friend who works with the Sendai Tourism, Convention and International Association (SENTIA), Banerjee contacted Wataru Ogura at the Sendai Food Bank with his idea. They spread the word through social media and initially set their goal at a modest 100,000 yen.

But donations started pouring in, and three weeks later, the pair had collected more than half a million yen. "Many people who donated hadn't even received their share of the emergency support fund, but they still contributed," said Banerjee, adding that international students, faculty and alumni from Tohoku University made up about 40 percent of all donors.

Four hundred thousand yen has been earmarked for food and basic supplies for 100 international students and 300 local residents across Sendai. The remaining 102,500 yen will go towards the development and expansion of the Sendai Food Bank.

The Food Bank is currently organizing pick-up days for aid recipients to collect their week-long supply of food. "They've been doing a great job, even checking for allergies and the kind of appliances people have at home. Some of the recipients don't have a rice cooker, so a cooked rice box helps a lot," said Banerjee. "The food they distribute includes cup noodles, rice and vegetables. Some international students eat halal food and that too is being considered as much as possible."

Banerjee came to Japan from India in 2015 as a freshman in the Advanced Molecular Chemistry (AMC) Course. Now in his fifth year in Sendai, he said he's happy for the opportunity to give back and show that the international community is a strong part of the city's fabric.

Banerjee and Velgus say they hope to plan another donation drive and perhaps engage in other forms of outreach if the pandemic continues to impact vulnerable communities in Sendai.

"We wanted to do this - at least the first donation drive - with only foreigners, to let Sendai know that we are always with them, in both good and bad times," said Banerjee. "But we are extremely grateful to the Japanese people who approached us and who also wanted to help. So we're thinking of another donation drive in a couple of months that will include everyone, and hopefully be able to make an even bigger difference to those in need."

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