Each of them lost a parent in the earthquake and tsunami that engulfed Japan two years ago. Many also lost their homes and most of their possessions. But last week, a group of young teenagers from Fukushima put painful memories behind them to enjoy a week in the Mountains.
They squealed on the rides at the Scenic Railway, loved the Three Sisters at Echo Point and were delighted to see kangaroos and joeys in the wild at the Karuna buddhist retreat in Katoomba where they stayed.
For a few brief days they were able to ignore the ever-present radiation risk from the crippled nuclear energy plant in their home town. Instead of restricting the amount of time they could play outside, they spent hours enjoying some spectacular late winter weather.
The visit was the brainchild of Nara Pearce from Karuna, whose parents were born in Fukushima and who still has relatives there. From the moment she saw the television footage of people and buildings being washed away, she knew she had to do something to help, she said.
It took two years to plan and involved creating a website, making a trip to Japan to reassure the children’s families that they would be safe here, plus enormous co-operation from the Japanese community in Sydney, which hosted the children before they came to the Mountains.
And it was worth all the effort, Mrs Pearce said.
“The children are transformed. When they came to Australia they were looking sad but when they finish the program they are different children with big smiles and bright eyes.
“We’re getting wonderful pleasure and enjoyment out of it.”
At Karuna, the children made candles and greeting cards, walked in the bush, learned about Aboriginal dot painting and had a table tennis contest. Some of them tasted roasted marshmallows for the first time around a campfire.
The retreat centre hosted two groups of children, Mrs Pearce said — the teenagers last week and a younger group the week before that.
The younger ones particularly loved a cubby house-building competition, she said.
“Many of them lost their homes and some are still living in temporary accommodation. They took special care to build their cubby houses.”
Mrs Pearce praised the large number of organisations who help make the trip a success, in particular Rotary which funded the second group.
She said those working with the children had been asked not to quiz them about their experience in the tsunami but she could see without the need for words how they felt.
“They were really hungry for human contact, for warmth,” she said. “They arrived looking not friendly and isolated but now they’ve started to open up and behave like normal kids.”