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Relatives seek ways to help quake victims

Six thousand miles from the ruins of the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, family and loved ones of those in the disaster zone living here in Buffalo are trying to find ways to help.

All last week, they spent agonized hours making phone calls to numbers that wouldn't connect.

They e-mailed, texted and posted on Facebook, looking for the missing.

They scoured the Internet and scrutinized YouTube footage for any clue about the fates of family and friends.

A week after the disaster, families here in Buffalo are starting to get the answers they are seeking.

They're also only beginning to learn the extent of the devastation.

Now, they are seeking ways to help their relatives and the people of Japan during the worst crisis the country has faced since World War II.

While there's been great attention paid to the escalating nuclear plant crisis in Fukushima, loved ones here worry that people are forgetting about the enormity of the devastation in the coastal regions, where entire towns were wiped out.

Fundraising for the disaster has lagged behind those for other disasters.

American donors raised $105 million for Japan in the weeks since the 9.0-magnitude quake, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

During the first weeks after the earthquake in Haiti, donations for Haiti were at $275 million, the journal pointed out.

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For Nick and Bernadette Sam of Buffalo, the call to action came the moment they learned Bernadette's cousin, Ken Kishima, was among the confirmed dead in Kesennuma.

Bernadette Sam's mother is Japanese and came to Buffalo more than 50 years ago, but many of her siblings stayed in Japan, mostly in the northeastern coastal region.

When the Sam family heard about the quake that hit the area where their relatives lived, they began searching for information about their family members. After a couple of days, they learned that most of their loved ones were safe, but many were unaccounted for.

Among them were Bernadette Sam's elderly aunt and uncle, Tetsuko and Yoshie Kishima, who lived in the hard-hit city of Rikuzentakata. Also missing were two cousins, Ken and Joji Kishima, whose brother, Toru, had lived with Bernadette's family in Buffalo in the early 1980s as an exchange student and spent his senior year at Bishop Timon-St. Jude High School.

Toru Kishima kept the Sams updated on the search for his brothers through e-mails. At first, there was hope that both had survived. In fact, just after the earthquake, Ken Kishima had sent his family an e-mail saying he was seeking higher ground.

But then Wednesday morning, the Sams received the terrible news.

"I just got call from Kesennuma and Joji was OK and he found Ken's body," the e-mail read.

A later e-mail added the heartbreaking detail that the body was found on the dead man's mother's birthday.

For Bernadette Sam, the news of her relative's death hit hard.

"This is really as bad as it looks," she remembered thinking.

She e-mailed her relatives asking if there was anything they could do, perhaps mail to them. Her relatives thanked her for her concern but said the mail system was in chaos and the roads were so badly damaged that any packages likely would never get there.

The Sam family began trying to figure out ways they could help.

"What can our little family do?" Nick Sam said.

He began making calls to his network of friends. He got his answer at Canisius High School, where his son, Nick Jr., is a junior. The school, which already has nonprofit status, was willing to act as the conduit for any donations and fundraisers. All money raised would then be given to Peace Winds, a nonprofit that does relief work in Asia. The organization was already in Kesennuma, distributing food and medicine. The Sams liked that the group pledges to spend 100 percent of donations on relief work.

Nick Sam Jr., who is 16, is helping out too. He is working on getting wristbands and T-shirts made to help raise money.

The Sams want the money raised for Peace Winds to be given in honor of Ken Kishima.

"It's something we can do to bring some joy into the hearts of this family," she said.

Many people have asked the Sams how they can help, and they are hoping other schools and organizations in Buffalo will join their fundraising efforts.

Checks can be made out to Canisius High School with Japan Tsunami Relief written in the memo line. They can be sent to Canisius High School, attention: Japan Tsunami Relief, 1180 Delaware Ave., Buffalo, NY 14209.

>A symbol of hope

Sakura Sato and her friends at Buffalo State College spent Friday night folding hundreds of paper origami cranes.

According to Japanese lore, one who folds a thousand cranes will have a wish come true. The story became internationally known after Sadako Sasaki, a little girl stricken with leukemia after surviving the bombing of Hiroshima, began folding cranes in hopes of her survival. She died, but her cranes have become a symbol of peace in Japan.

Sato, a health and wellness major, and her friends collected donations during the Buffalo State Bengals Alumni 5K Saturday morning. In exchange for a donation, they gave one of the cranes.

Sato is hopeful that Saturday's fundraiser will be one of many she and her friends can hold to help her home country.

Sato is grateful that her immediate family in the Iwate prefecture, where 2,000 people were killed and nearly 4,000 more are still missing, escaped the quake and tsunami safely.

"But I haven't gotten a hold of everybody: friends' friends and family," she said.

Sato has felt helpless here in Buffalo as she has heard tales from her family.

While their house remains standing, her parents have had to deal with severe food and gasoline shortages. Her parents have resorted to walking to work. They also must spend hours in line to get into grocery stores. "Once you get into the store, there's rarely any fresh food. There's no fruit, vegetables, meats or fish," Sato said.

Koki Takano, an athletic trainer at Canisius College, was in Massachusetts for the Atlantic Hockey Quarterfinal series when he got a call on his cell phone from his wife in Buffalo. It was 2 a.m.

He checked and saw it was the third time she had called.

"There's got to be something really, really wrong," Takano remembered thinking.

He walked down to the hotel lobby and put on CNN. He saw footage of the quake and tsunami but he didn't know where in Japan it had struck. Takano called his wife.

"She told me it was Sendai," he recalled.

That's where Takano's father worked.

"I thought my dad was just gone," he said. "I thought about the worst-case scenario."

He frantically tried to reach his father in Sendai and his mother in Sapporo, a city on the northern island of Hokkaido, but couldn't get through to either.

About two days after the quake, an American friend living in Japan managed to get through to one of Takano's relatives, who relayed that his father is alive.

Takano soon learned that both of his parents narrowly escaped death.

Takano's mother had gone to Sendai to visit for the weekend. Normally, his father, a devoted worker, would never have taken a day off, but he and his wife decided to spend the day on the nearby island of Matsushima, famed for its oysters.

They spent a little while there before deciding around noon to head back to Takano's father's house in Sendai.

They were still driving, almost at the house, when the earthquake hit. The tsunami soon followed. Luckily, the waters did not reach the house.

But the building where his father worked was swept away by the powerful tsunami.

"It's nothing," he said. "It's destroyed."

The Takanos learned that the island where they had spent the morning was destroyed by the water.

"If they stayed in Matsushima, there's no chance they would be alive," Takano said.

His mother is back safe in Sapporo now. Takano was eventually able to talk to her by phone, but she is hesitant to talk about what she experienced, he said. His father remained in Sendai to help find survivors from his company and also to get his business back up and running.

e-mail: mbecker@buffnews.com