Doctor Lika’a Alkazayer and Doctor Minoru Kamata of the Japan Chernobyl Foundation give a presentation in Ainkawa. Photo: Alexander Whitcomb.
AINKAWA, Kurdistan Region — A Japanese organization working in Kurdistan is coaching Iraq’s displaced to look beyond basic survival and how to start thinking about how to live very long lives.
“My heart beats for the Iraqi people,” said Doctor Minoru Kamata, a leading specialist in leukemia treatment speaking to a crowd of displaced Iraqis at a church in Erbil’s Christian quarter Sunday.
Kamata’s organization, the Japan Chernobyl Foundation, has been working in Iraq since 2005 trying to mitigate cancer in the fallout of the country’s devastating wars. Iraq has seen a huge spike in leukemia since the Second Gulf War.
The foundation supports 13 doctors and 36 staff working full time at clinics in the Erbil area, providing much-needed equipment and medicine.
But on this trip, Kamata was here to share tips about how to live longer, healthier and fuller lives, even when the internally displaced persons (IDPs) live in rudimentary tents, and remain dependent on aid handouts far from their homes and livelihoods.
Originally from Nagano, which has the longest life expectancy in the world, Kamata had five pointers for the crowd.
Firstly, he told the audience to take it easy with the salt.
“Here they use a lot of salt. This increases blood pressure and can lead to strokes,” he warned. He advised that salts are already found in most food, so heaping it on was unnecessary and unwise.
Secondly, he recommended eating as many vegetables as possible.
“We eat a lot of the green stuff in Nagano,” said Kamata, who also works on product development for non-carcinogenic goods at a food company in Japan.
This point often met resistance in the camps, where many displaced have other demands. “I was telling a man in the camps to eat a lot of vegetables,” Kamata said, “but he rebuked me and told me he needs real food—meat!”
Kamata’s third, and most critical suggestion, is that IDPs get more exercise. He prescribed a minimum of 15 minutes a day of walking or other physical activity.
“You can pass the time thinking about your health and believing you will go back home,” Kamata said, noting that it was crucial to stay positive. Right now he is developing an exercise program tailored for pregnant women with lower back pain.
The doctor’s last two points advised maximizing serotonin and oxytocin levels, both of which naturally occur in the body and are linked with happiness and social interaction. High levels of serotonin correlate with longevity. Oxytocin is secreted during breast-feeding and other "altruistic" human activities, and has an important role in regulating the immune system.
In order to achieve higher serotonin and oxytocin levels, Kamata stressed the importance of maintaining strong social bonds. Studies from his native Nagano clearly demonstrate that people who are isolated from society live much shorter lives, and he said he believes that the close-knit culture of the city was one of the main factors for its top life expectancy ranking.
At this point, Kamata’s assistant Taki chimed in with some advice of his own. In times of hardship, “You have to concentrate on the basic things. Even tea can make you happy,” he said, adding that even simply laughing is a good way to boost serotonin.
Kamata assured the audience that even if they were to focus on just one of these things, especially exercise, their risk of strokes would fall dramatically.
“No matter who we are—Sunni, Shia, Christian, Kurdish—we need peace. And if we have health, it makes peace all the more likely,” he said. “What is the point if you return to your homes, but you are in poor health?”
Kamata’s Japanese was translated by Doctor Lika’a Alkazayer, a Christian pediatric oncologist from Mosul who fled her hometown after she received death threats and witnessed murders of the city’s Christians over the last decade.
She accepted a research position in Japan and is now fully fluent in Japanese. Years of living there has worn off, although she was delighted to be back in her native country. The doctor sported a distinctively Japanese-style cropped haircut as she casually sang along with a Christian hymn in Arabic before the medical presentation.
“I know you have lost your homes, and it is not easy, but I implore you to look after your health,” she told the crowd.
Alkazayer explained that while Japan hasn’t experienced war for 70 years, the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in March 2011 that claimed over 17,000 lives scarred Japanese people and taught them how to effectively respond to terrible catastrophes.
“It was a tragedy for Japan, just as Iraq has suffered tragedy,” she said.
Kamata drew other parallels between the two nations.
“Japanese and Iraqi people both are known for their hospitality,” he said. “I have made many friends here in 10 years, and people are always ready to help. We stopped for lunch on our way to the camps, and the restaurant owner happily volunteered to distribute food.”