TOKYO—Afshin Valinejad’s dining room is crammed with carpets, food, and toys.
“I’m really impressed,” he says, staring at the huge heap of supplies. “I’m just
speechless.” Valinejad, an Iranian expat who has lived in Japan for nearly a
decade, is on a mission to give back to his second home.
His motivation is clear. The need in this country is great in the wake of the
March 11 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. Tens of thousands of people are
bedding down in temporary shelters, either because they lived too close to the
damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, or because the sea chewed up their
homes and spat them out.
While the government and major aid agencies are leading the charge to help
out, people like Valinejad are also making a contribution.
His plan, as laid out in an email he sent to friends and acquaintances, was
simple: he didn’t want money, just new goods he could take to the northeast to
give to people who now have nothing. Days later, the floodgates opened: food,
clothing, toys, stuffed animals, stationary, and other supplies. But the biggest
haul came from a businessman friend who sent hundreds of kilograms of Persian
rugs in all shapes and sizes. Some are for people to put under futons to keep
out the cold when they sleep in drafty schools and recreation centres. Others,
known as zabutons in Japanese, are small enough for someone to sit on,
either on the floor or in a chair.
“People were so generous to give what they could,” he says, as a group of
friends helps him pack up his big rental van. “The point is they gave everything
in good quality.”
The journey starts about 1:30 a.m. one Saturday in March. Swiss freelance
journalist Miguel Quintana, riding shotgun, sets the GPS. How many kilometres
until we’re there, someone asks.
He replies, “536.”
“I thought it was 400-something,” counters Dutch expat, Monique van
“It’s 536 if you stay away from the power plant,” he laughs. “Any
Hundreds of kilometres later, the van is rumbling past Sendai, one of the
places along the northeast coast that was inundated by the monster tsunami.
Valinejad has been to this region several times since March 11, first as a
driver and fixer for foreign media crews, and now as a humanitarian. While you
could easily call his trip a “Magic Carpet Ride” given his cargo, he’s named
this journey a “Tour of Love.”
“Afshin cares very deeply,” says his friend, Matin Gharachorlou, another
Iranian expat who lives in Tokyo. “He’s a very good man.”
By mid-morning, the van is on the outskirts of Kesennuma, a fishing town that
was first shaken by the quake, then swamped by the tsunami, and finally burned
by fires that broke out. Valinejad prepares his passengers for what they’re
about to witness.
“What we have to understand is that the earthquake did nothing. Everything is
just by tsunami,” he shouts over the drone of the engine. “Everything is just
As the group walks tromps the town, scenes of devastation appear around every
corner. Houses lie in splintered stacks, the odd car squashed beneath them. A
bent-over road sign points to Kesennuma city hall, which became a shelter for
people who lost their homes soon after the massive tsunami. On one side of a
dusty road, heavy machinery claws through the rubble in an attempt to make some
order out of the piles of scrap metal and chunks of wood. On the other, a small
market is selling vegetables, an island of normalcy surrounded by a sea of
chaos. Down at the port, people race to get supplies to an island off the coast
that was inundated by the tsunami and cut off for days.
Seeing the extent of the damage in Kesennuma, it’s hard to believe it could
get worse. But at the next stop, in Rikuzentakata, it does. The tsunami swept
away almost three-quarters of the city, and killed a tenth its 23,000
“It’s just otherworldly,” says Valinejad. “There’s nothing that compares to
“Coming up soon on the right,” the GPS announces sweetly. “Rikuzentakata
station.” All that’s there, though, is an eviscerated building and a railway
line that’s twisted like a ribbon. Elsewhere, flattened cars lie about. Worldly
possessions are scattered everywhere. Dust and a dank smell fill the air.
Soon, the van makes its way up a hill to a school-turned-temporary shelter
and Valinejad and his friends start handing out their goods.
“Let’s give them to anyone who wants,” says Valinejad as he unloads the van,
stacking carpets into the awaiting arms of his friends.
The Japanese they meet, still in shock over suddenly becoming refugees in
their own country, bow and say not much more than a heartfelt arigato
gozaimasu (thank you very much) as they receive the gifts.
The scene is similar at the next shelter, a chilly sports centre where people
are sleeping in tents.
“The carpets should help you have a warmer experience inside this facility,”
Valinejad tells the small crowd waiting in the entranceway.
After some chatting and some photos, it’s time to leave.
“Bye-bye. Thank you,” say three children, who have been made farewell
ambassadors by their parents.
Valinejad angles the van onto the road and heads to the ryokan where the
group will spend the night before returning to Tokyo. Miguel Quintana looks at
his friend proudly.
“That’s exactly the kind of Afshin I’ve known for many, many years,” he says.
“He’s the kind of guy that when somebody’s in trouble, he first starts wondering
if there’s anything he can do about it.”
Valinejad, whose heartfelt humanitarianism is matched by his modesty, says
he’s just a porter who has been given the honour to distribute goods to people
“I’ve always believed that when you have something in your heart and you want
to do it, you don’t look for planning or something that you have to organize
everything,” he says. “I was sure we’d be able to do some good. I had no