This interview is part of our latest Women and Leadership special report, which highlights women making significant contributions to the major stories unfolding in the world today. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Rumiko Seya, 45, is the president of REALs, a nonprofit organization based in Japan that since 1999 has focused on conflict prevention and peacekeeping in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
REALs (Reach Alternatives) provides services and assistance in a number of places, but lately is involved in Afghanistan, which has been experiencing violence and life-threatening food shortages since the Taliban took over last summer. What has been REALs’ role there?
We have received more than 800 requests for evacuation. We try to reach out to the most vulnerable, but because everyone is at risk, we cannot save everyone at the same time. So we have to prioritize people, which is hard for us because I know everyone is facing some kind of life threat.
What steps has REALs taken?
As the charter evacuation flights have dramatically decreased since last September, we started securing other exit routes and providing protection. There are many pregnant women who can’t go to the hospital because they are afraid of being captured. So we send female doctors to their homes.
At the same time, we secure visas to countries that can provide asylum or refugee status. That’s mainly in the U.S., Australia or Europe. So depending on the person, we have to select the countries for which they have a high success rate of being accepted, and we prepare all the documentation. If the families do not have financial resources, we raise funds and provide financial support for transportation and visa fees.
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How many people have been evacuated so far?
We managed to evacuate 184 [as of March 2]. We are in the process of evacuating 150 more. And we also have 400 to 500 people waiting for their cases to be processed.
Has Japan welcomed Afghan refugees?
The Japanese government evacuated around 500 people [as of March 2], but they were all [current] employees of the Japanese Embassy or the Japan International Cooperation Agency [a government agency that provides development assistance]. When they announced the evacuation of former staff, they only allowed the principal applicants to be evacuated. Since the main workers were fathers, most of them gave up being evacuated by Japan because they couldn’t leave their wives and children behind.
Japan does not easily provide refugee status. The person or at least one family member has to have secured full employment or full educational positions in universities. If they meet these criteria, Japan will provide eligibility certification. But it’s not something we tell people in Afghanistan,because they are about to be killed and then we have to tell them, ‘I know you used to work for Japan and thank you, but for you to be evacuated to Japan, you have to find full-time jobs.’ So we try to take people to other countries.
We do collaborate with some companies in Japan that are ready to accept Afghans at risk. After we secure employment, we have to obtain all the documentation to apply for eligibility in Japan. That costs a lot and it takes time.We are in the process of accepting two families through this process. One is going to Hokkaido and another one to Kumamoto. We are supporting 10 other families whose final destination is Japan. But among all the people that we are supporting, only about 10 percent come to Japan.
Is REALs also focusing on women within Afghanistan?
One of the women I support is 19 years old. She was working as a women’s activist and journalist, but she was threatened and assaulted by the Taliban because of her work. Still, she continues with pride. I had to take her out of Afghanistan to save her life. She still wants to go back to Afghanistan, if the situation improves. And there are many people like that.
We also started food aid in Afghanistan in February, targeting 15,400 people, including women-headed households. Some of them are mothers, and some were university students who had a lot of dreams. But then it turned to darkness in one night.
Where do the funds to support the evacuations and food aid come from?
We receive U.N. and other support for other projects. But REALs does not receive any funding for Afghan evacuation, apart from private donations. We started fund-raising for that around October; before that, we used our internal assets. We need around $1 million to support the evacuations; so far about $300,000 has been donated to REALs.
What made you decide to get into humanitarian work?
When I was 17 years old, in high school, I saw a photo, taken in a refugee camp, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where 2 million Rwandan people had fled. It was during a time when I was complaining a lot about my life. I realized there was only one camera between myself and the photo, but there was huge difference in life. I started having a vision of myself being able to return something to the people who enlightened me. I wanted to do something because I was saved by looking at these people.
And now you are the president of this organization. Did you experience challenges as a woman during your career?
In Afghanistan, I didn’t have a direct harassment, but I had to be careful. For example, during meetings with Afghan officials, I didn’t speak because I knew women are not supposed to speak in public. I was trying to be culturally sensitive.
But there are also roles that only women can play. And that is the motivation for me to continue. When we work with women who were raped or attacked, they are afraid of talking to men even if they are from humanitarian organizations. But when I go there to talk to them, they open up.