MENOMONEE FALLS — After Japan’s 150 earthquakes last month, including the one topping 9 magnitude on March 11, followed by a devastating tsunami and frigid weather, 7-year-old Sarah and 4-year-old Sein Yoo were understandably terrified. All that they knew of their world crumbled; their home and their father’s office building were damaged, leaving it unsafe to remain in their city near Tokyo.
They needed stability and they craved normal, but all that surrounded them was destruction and chaos. The girls’ uncle, Daniel Yoo, formerly of Korea, resides in the Milwaukee area and he invited his brother and family to live with him until it was safe to return.
“They were lucky to get the plane tickets right after the earthquake. People were just waiting for any available ticket to get out of Tokyo while they were sleeping at the airport,” said Yoo. “Their house was OK, but their business will need repair and remodeling for normal operation. They didn’t have much for water and food supplies because of the radiation infection in Tokyo.”
As Yoo prepared for the family’s arrival, he also paved the way for his nieces to attend school temporarily at Aquinas Academy, a private school in the Catholic tradition in Menomonee Falls. The owner of Capitol Cleaners in Brookfield is no stranger to Aquinas, as he has served as a liaison for many Korean exchange students who come to Aquinas during their summer vacation or for the full year for immersion in a Christian environment or to learn English and American culture.
According to Mike Schmainda, executive director of Aquinas, Yoo called the week following the earthquakes, explained the situation and asked if his nieces would be welcome at the school. Since the earthquake, students and staff have prayed for all affected by the earthquake, but never imagined that it would touch their own community.
“There was no question, of course, and we were charmed with their sweet faces at our door that first Monday morning,” said Schmainda, referring to Monday, March 14, when the youngsters arrived. “With that impressive Asian sense for orderliness, the girls arrived with their school uniforms from Japan, blue plaid jumpers with matching jackets and bobby socks. We witnessed some touching moments that first day. Our second graders especially enjoyed the opportunity to welcome these new friends who have come so far, and with so much courage. I saw the girls laughing and chatting during their lunch period, while one of the bubbly second graders tried to speak to the petite Sein, whose language skills at 4, are limited even with her native tongue.”
For three weeks, Sarah and Sein began each day praying, “Good morning dear Jesus; I love you. My Jesus, everything I do today I do for you,” with the rest of the school children.
According to admissions director Nan Ross, although the three weeks the girls attended school went much too quickly, they fit in perfectly with their classmates.
“The older child, Sarah, spoke English very well, Sein’s language is not as developed, however language was not a barrier. Kids are kids and although the K4 children didn’t always communicate perfectly with Sein, they understood each other and interacted as if there was no language difficulty,” she said. “Our children were thrilled to have Sarah and Sein visiting from Japan. We teach our Aquinas children through formation that all children are valued and a wonderful gift from God. They were all anxious to be their friends, sit next to them, play with them, and ask questions. It was a totally positive experience for both Aquinas students and for Sarah and Sein.”
Coming to the more relaxed environment in the United States seemed to be the ideal antidote to combat the frightening experience the earthquake brought to their lives, she said. Being able to freely express themselves and participate in classroom activities seemed to give them a much-needed diversion, according to Ross.
“Sarah and Sein exhibited confidence academically and socially and appeared to be very well adjusted. The girls were polite and respectful to teachers and staff members, looked at you when spoken to, answered in complete sentences and always had a ready smile,” she said. “Sarah appeared to be perfectly stable emotionally, however Sein was, at first a bit reluctant to leave her mother. I think she felt insecure to be in a strange school with all new friends at age 4. The first few days we allowed Sein to visit her sister from time to time during the day hoping to build her trust and confidence. We also encouraged Sein to sit next to her sister at lunch and participate in the same recess.”
For Yoo, he is grateful to Aquinas Academy for welcoming his nieces, showing compassion and making them comfortable in an uncomfortable situation.
“My brother was very touched and appreciated when everyone encouraged them and told them to pray for them,” he said. “My nieces really enjoyed going to school everyday and it was a great opportunity for them to learn English and American culture. I hope they will keep in touch with their new long distance friends.”
While there continues to be danger in Tokyo, the family hesitantly returned home Saturday, April 2, as the girls’ father needed to oversee the repairs on his business and return to work as an entertainer and producer.
“They felt a relief when they arrived in America, but they have been thinking of their friends and co-workers who stayed in Japan,” said Yoo. “The girls will return to their schools; Sarah is in second grade at Tokyo Kankoku School and Sein attends pre-school, and the family is anxious to return to Kajeto Hibana Presbyterian Church.”
While the girls’ smiling faces will be missed, Schmainda believes their presence benefited the Aquinas students and reminded them of the inestimable grace of family bonds, which, he said, when built on Christian love, cannot fail in times of need.
“We saw it in these girls, whose affection for each other could not be missed. We saw it in the fourth-grader, Philip Yoo, Daniel’s son and their cousin, who welcomed them like younger sisters, helping with translations, and calling home when the situation demanded. And we admire tremendously the two sets of parents – one having to leave their country because of tragedy and the other welcoming an entire family into their home. When we saw them here, they did not complain. In fact they bowed repeatedly and thanked us just as often for taking in their girls.”