With the cooperation of other nongovernmental organizations, Rissho Kosei-kai launched the Little Bags of Dreams Campaign in 1999. The campaign was originally begun by JEN, Japan's first multiorganizational NGO of which Rissho Kosei-kai is also a member organization.
In this annual campaign, conducted from late April through the end of August, elementary and junior high school students fill little cloth bags with stationery items, small daily necessities, toys, and cards containing messages of friendship at home with their parents or in their respective churches with friends and other members. The little bags, approximately 22 x 32 cm. (9" x 13"), are prepared by their parents and volunteer members of each church.
After the campaign, the Little Bags of Dreams collected from each Rissho Kosei-kai church are sent with the assistance of other nongovernmental organizations to be distributed to children in Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, and the former Yugoslavia, many of whom have suffered the loss of their homes and family members as the result of local conflicts. Rissho Kosei-kai has sent some volunteer groups of parents and children to these countries to participate in the distribution of the gift bags. The goals of the Little Bags of Dreams campaign are first, to help heal the psychological wounds suffered by children in many parts of the world; second, to allow Japanese children and their parents to contribute to the happiness of children who have suffered, and third, to help Japanese children grow spiritually and teach them to appeal to their friends to join in the spirit of sharing in others' suffering, offering prayers for them, and making donations. The following report describes the experience of one such volunteer group from Rissho Kosei-kai that visited Serbia from March 26 to April 4, 2000.
A party consisting of five children, aged from 11 to 13, and their parents, together with staff members from Rissho Kosei-kai headquarters in Tokyo and JEN staff members traveled to Serbia by car for nearly seven hours from neighboring Hungary. They went by car because they could not secure scheduled air transportation due to continuing tension in the province of Kosovo. They expected that when they reached Belgrade, the Serbian capital, a JEN staff member would tell them where child refugees from Kosovo, Croatia, and Bosnia would be awaiting their arrival.
In the car, Ms. Kiyoko Karatsu, head of the JEN Belgrade office, explained that the people of Serbia had been able to survive despite the severe economic sanctions imposed by the NATO members because they had developed self-sufficient lifestyles.
Unemployment in the country stands at nearly 40 percent. Almost one-tenth of Serbia's original population were forced to become refugees. In a large city like Pec in Kosovo, 63 nongovernmental organizations were undertaking relief activities, but in Serbia only six such organizations are engaged in providing assistance for the 200,000 refugees who had fled from Kosovo and the 500,000 refugees who had left Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Several years have passed since the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord in December 1995, but tensions among the various ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia continue.
Just before entering Belgrade, one of the Japanese schoolgirls in the group was concerned about how deeply the Serbian children had been affected by the conflict and whether they might have a negative attitude toward everything.
Because it was the school spring vacation season, refugee children were able to gather at the camps and the "Common Rooms" managed by JEN. Different representatives of the Rissho Kosei-kai volunteer group of children and parents were to visit each site according to the advance schedule prepared by the JEN coordinator.
At one of the Common Rooms several children stood around waiting. One of the Japanese children nervously offered a greeting in Serbian, "Dobar dan" (hello), and replies of "Dobar dan" were soon heard from the refugee children, who welcomed the Japanese visitors by reciting a poem, singing a local folk song, and demonstrating a Serbian folk dance. The Japanese children responded by playing a selection on recorders and singing a Japanese song. Soon the refugee children and their visitors were dancing together to local folk songs.
Distribution of the Little Bags of Dreams followed, with the Japanese children and parents presenting them individually to each child, saying, "Izvinite" (please), to children lined up waiting, who answered, "Hvala" (thank you). Since in Japan it is not customary to exchange kisses on social occasions, some of the Japanese children were confused by this manner of displaying one's emotions. The Serbian children present ranged in age from four to ten, and all had been verified as refugees.
One of the Japanese boys, an elementary school pupil, happily told his mother after the distribution of the little bags that he had been asked to join a soccer game with the local children and said he had already made some Serbian friends.
At Kragujevac, formerly an automobile manufacturing town south of Belgrade, a party from the Rissho Kosei-kai volunteer group met the vice director of the town's cultural affairs bureau. He asked the Japanese children for a message for the children in Serbia. Representing the group, a junior high school girl replied, "All of us in Japan, not only our group, hope that happy times will soon come for the children in Serbia and that all the parts of the former Yugoslavia will be able to live in peace as soon as possible."
In his response, the vice director said, "Some ten years ago, we citizens of Serbia provided relief assistance to other countries in the world. I hope the future will be bright for all of us. I really appreciate that you are helping us and showing such kindness for the children here through your Little Bags of Dreams campaign."
The junior high school girl later commented about the fact that people in Serbia had once provided assistance for other people but now must be recipients of such assistance. She said she imagined that the pride of the people had been badly hurt after years of internal conflict. Compared to the people living in rich Japan, however, she thought the refugees had achieved a purity in their hearts and minds that money could not buy.
At the end of their visit some of the Japanese children asked the local staff members of JEN about their future plans in the former Yugoslavia. One of the staff members replied that JEN would be leaving entirely before long, but they had set up a nongovernmental group called Mirai (from the Japanese word for future) in cooperation with local residents. That group would continue JEN's efforts at assisting people in the area.
A Serbian psychiatrist on the JEN staff said that he announced to the Serbian children in one of the Common Rooms that children from Japan were coming to visit. But he did not tell them about the distribution of the Little Bags of Dreams. He did not want them to superficially welcome the Japanese children only because their visitors would be bringing presents.
The psychiatrist hoped the two groups of children would become friends, and he also wanted to teach the local children to be self-reliant. Only five days before the arrival of the group, the children in the Common Room were very pleased to learn of the visit of the children from Japan and had discussed how to welcome them, rehearsing their program every day. As he anticipated, the local children were happily surprised to receive the unexpected gifts of the Little Bags of Dreams from the visitors.
After the ten days in Serbia, a junior high school girl member of the Rissho Kosei-kai volunteer group said that wherever their party visited they were always welcomed with programs of amusements, presents, and sweet refreshments. Before visiting Serbia, she was concerned that the children there were experiencing many difficulties in their daily lives and had intended to present them the little gift bags as a representative of her Rissho Kosei-kai church. But she was greatly pleased by the realization that she had received so much tenderness and strength from the children in Serbia in return.