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Plight of Japan's 'tsunami orphans'

By Kyung Lah, CNN
  • Nearly three months after the disaster, Japan is still counting the number of orphans
  • The government estimates 1200 children lost one parent and 200 lost both
  • Once strong, donations to a Japanese orphan agency have dwindled in recent weeks
  • A group of Japanese orphans are traveling to meet 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina orphans

Ishinomaki, Japan (CNN) -- Sayaka Sugawara feels nothing, she says, standing on the foundation of the only home she's ever known. Japan's devastating tsunami on March 11 swept away the entire structure, leaving behind only a horror the 15-year old still cannot comprehend.

"I was in the stairway," she recalls. "My mother was upstairs. My grandmother and great grandmother were downstairs with my dog. I heard a huge sound from the ground. Instantly, my house broke apart. I thought, 'Oh, I will die now.'"

Sayaka pauses, staring out over the landscape of nothingness. Two hundred homes once stood here -- not a single sign remains of that community.

Without her parents, Sayaka is now an orphan at age 15.

Three months after the disaster, Japan's government is still counting the number of children like Sayaka who have lost either one or both parents. The government estimates 1,200 children lost one parent and 200 lost both. These children will either end up living with distant relatives or place in a Japanese orphanage -- but many orphanages across the nation are at full occupancy.

Ashinaga, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping Japanese orphans, hopes to directly help the tsunami orphans through financial assistance and psychological support.

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"We'd like to never forget about their lives," says Yukichi Okazaki, Ashinaga's supervising director for education and international affairs.

But the problem is that the world is already forgetting, he adds. In the early days of the disaster, the group's phones rang off the hook, with offers of donations coming in from across Japan and the globe.

"They start forgetting what happened in Japan. That's why we are going to visit New York, to ask the international community to never forget."

For Sayaka, the harrowing details after the tsunami obliterated her home are still painfully vivid. "I found myself over there," she says, pointing to an elementary school, about 100 meters away.

Sayaka and her mother, Riko Sugawara, were pulled by the first tsunami waves out of their home and into the school's outdoor swimming pool.

"The rubble was piled on top of me and I could feel the water pulling back. My mother was next to me, alive and talking. Her right leg was under the rubble and she couldn't move. She told me to go."

Sayaka's face shows no emotion as she recounts the moment. "I told her, 'Okay, I'll go now.' She then said, 'Don't go!' But I still left."

Just as she pulled herself out of the rubble another tsunami wave hit, throwing her high into the air and onto the school's red rooftop. Here the story becomes fuzzy -- she believes two days passed before rescuers pulled her to safety.

(My mother's) right leg was under the rubble and she couldn't move. She told me to go
--Tsunami orphan Sayaka Sugawara

In the weeks that followed, search teams recovered the bodies of Sayaka's mother and grandmother. Her great-grandmother's body remains missing. All of her closest guardians died, except for an elderly grandfather. Sayaka's biological father has never been part of her life.

Sayaka considers herself lucky. Just before the March disaster, a private school accepted her as a student, though she expects to commute from home. The school is letting her live free of charge in the dormitory this year and offering financial assistance for tuition. She hopes the financial support will continue, but there's been no assurance it will last more than one year.

A picture of her mother sits on her small refrigerator. That picture, she explains, was taken on March 4, a week before the tsunami hit. Sayaka has several precious photos of her mother, pulled from the mobile phone found buried with her mother's body.

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As horrifying as Sayaka's story may be, she is quick to say her situation is far better than other orphans she's met. "Don't feel sorry for me," she says. "Feel sorry for the elementary school kids who lost their parents or a kid doesn't even have a grandfather, like me. Don't feel sorry for me."

Sayaka is part of a group of four orphans Okazaki is taking to the U.S. for a fundraiser in New York's Times Square. Okazaki hopes the U.S. media will help spread the word about the orphans in Japan. It's an uphill battle, Okazaki says, in a country resistant to adoption or supporting non-blood relatives.

The students will also meet with American orphans, who lost parents in the 9-11 terror attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

At Tokyo's Narita Airport on Tuesday, where the four orphans prepared to board their flight to the U.S., the children chat excitingly about their trip through New York. They're not worried about the language gap, they say.

"Only children like us can really understand each other," says Shoya Kasai, who was also orphaned in the tsunami.

Sayaka says she's looking forward to meeting a child who has kept on surviving, despite losing his parents.

"I don't feel anything about any of this," she says, referring to the loss of her home or her family. She understands that someday those feelings will come, perhaps years from now. The question will be if there will be anyone near her to help her cope.

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