When Asuka “Aska” Hirabe Hamakawa was a teenager, she taught piano to kids in the neighborhood and donated the money she made to UNICEF. She says, “UNICEF began to send me a monthly newsletter. I was shocked by what I read and made up my mind to someday become somebody who is capable of serving those in need.”
Born in Japan in 1982, Aska earned a bachelor’s degree at Boston University and after graduating took a backpacking trip to the Pacific Islands. There, she fell in love with Samoa and its people. Though her travels took her to many other places, she returned to Samoa a year later. “In that short time, the scenery had changed quite significantly,” she says. “I saw the powerful effects of climate change with my own eyes.” Concerned and wanting to be able to do something to help, Aska left her job and enrolled in a graduate program in Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
In 2009, while she was studying, Samoa was hit by an earthquake and tsunami that ravaged its shores. Motivated to act quickly, Aska raised $15,000 for relief efforts in just one week. Ten days after the earthquake hit, Aska flew to Samoa to help with the reconstruction of homes and to deliver humanitarian aid in the form of clothes and medicines.
In March 2011, nearly done with her studies, Aska was visiting family in Tokyo when a tsunami and earthquake devastated northern Japan. Aska says, “I remember turning the TV on and seeing the waves swallowing everything— people, cars, homes. It was a life-changing experience for me.” Though Aska had a job waiting for her in Samoa, she felt a responsibility to help her home country recover from this terrible disaster. With the PeaceBoat organization, she went to the most severely affected city, Ishinomaki, serving at the frontline of the disaster relief work by heading the fishery support division and managing volunteers for seven months.
“At first, what the affected coastal communities needed was to get rid of debris because all you could see then was piles of debris covered in sludge,” says Aska. “We worked with the fishermen and oyster farmers to dig mud, clear rubbish and retrieve their things from the shores, the inland areas, and even from the mountains so that they could work again.”
One of the most inspiring outcomes of this experience came two years later. In August 2013, a cyclone devastated another town in northern Japan. This time, remembering the generosity shown to them by the thousands of Japanese and foreign volunteers who helped with their recovery in 2011, the fishermen with whom Aska had worked volunteered as relief workers for the cyclone victims. “I think it’s admirable because their lives hadn’t fully recovered from their own disaster,” she says, “yet they were willing to help others who were afflicted by another incident. It is such a great thing when a good deed leads to another good deed and another.”
Aska currently serves as the vice president of Tuvalu Overview, an NGO addressing climate change on the island nation of Tuvalu. One project, “Build a Future with 10,000 Tuvaluans,” is documenting the face and story of every Tuvaluan, as well as their love for Tuvalu and how they feel about the fact that their country is disappearing due to climate change. Tuvalu Overview also works to raise awareness about climate change amongst Tuvaluans. “Even though Tuvaluan people see what’s happening to them, many don’t know why,” explains Aska. “A lot of people feel helpless and hopeless.”
For now, Aska is staying close to home and cherishing time with her newborn daughter Yula, but the needs of others are never far from her mind. She says, “I look forward to the next journey of my life. Now that I have the love and support of my husband Tomo (also a 2014 Unsung Hero), I believe that together we can accomplish more.”