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With memories of his grandfathers, U.S. Ambassador inspires Ukraine support fund

Front row) Ukrainian evacuees and (back row from the right) U.S. Ambassador Rahm Emanuel, Ukrainian Ambassador Sergiy Korsunsky, and Nippon Foundation Executive Director Sasakawa Jumpei pose for a commemorative photograph after the announcement of the Ukraine Evacuees Assistance Fund. (June 13, 2022, Minato City, Tokyo)

By Suyeong Kim


“When history looks down and remembers the millions of people who were forced to leave their homes, the question one day will be asked of you, ‘What did you do at that time?’”


These were the words of U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel, who inspired the creation of a fund to support evacuees from Ukraine. He was speaking at a press conference on June 13 [held to announce the launch of the fund]. Emanuel continued, “I have a moral responsibility beyond my job of being an ambassador from a free country.”


Emanuel comes from a Jewish family. According to the American press, his paternal grandfather fled Odessa in southern Ukraine in 1905 to escape the “pogroms” (persecution of Jews) and emigrated to Palestine before the founding of Israel. His father, a pediatrician, emigrated to the United States in 1953 and moved to Chicago two years later. Emanuel’s maternal grandfather fled the pogroms in Ukraine’s neighbor, Moldova, and went to Chicago. Emanuel has held key positions within Democratic administrations in the U.S. and served as mayor of Chicago.


On Feb. 25, only about a month after he had arrived at his post as U.S. ambassador, Emanuel hurriedly held a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (FCCJ; Chiyoda City, Tokyo). It was the day after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine. Earlier that day, Ukrainian Ambassador Sergiy Korsunsky and Russian Ambassador Mikhail Galuzin had each held a press conference at the FCCJ in which they criticized each other. [At his press conference] Emanuel expressed his solidarity with Ukraine and criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin, calling him by his last name only and describing him as “the (world’s) pariah.”


Emanuel has worked tirelessly to provide indirect support to Ukraine, including having Japanese Self-Defense Forces defense equipment airlifted to Ukraine via a U.S. military aircraft. He has [also] been focusing his energy on supporting Ukrainian evacuees who have come to Japan.


On April 21, he accompanied Ambassador Korsunsky to meet with 22 Ukrainian mothers and children living in the suburbs of the greater metropolitan area and held a pizza party to encourage them. He gave each Ukrainian in attendance a $25 IC card at his own expense, with the hope that the evacuees would use the transportation card (worth about 3,200 yen using the exchange rate at that time) to ride public transportation and shop for basic necessities. A [Ukrainian] woman said she shed tears on Emanuel’s shoulder when their conversation turned to her two children with whom she had evacuated. Her husband is still back in Ukraine. After the visit, Emanuel told reporters, “I will never forget this event.”


“How can we extend support to reach all the evacuees?”


This was Emanuel’s question to Executive Director Sasakawa Jumpei of the Nippon Foundation. Emanuel had been discussing support for the evacuees with Korsunsky and then phoned Sasakawa directly because the Nippon Foundation was already working on Ukrainian evacuee support in Japan. This led to the establishment of the fund.


At the press conference on June 13, Emanuel pointed out that Japan has not had much experience in accepting a large number of foreign evacuees all at once. “The Japanese people have stepped up and welcomed Ukrainian evacuees. They have welcomed them into their communities. I would like to see them take another big step [and participate in this fund],” he said, calling for donations. “Putin is hoping that the West and those who are freedom-loving will get tired and become exhausted. This is really a test of both will and endurance,” he said.

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