“We are still in shock.”

In Iwaki, Japan, fears of radiation poisoning from the nearby nuclear meltdowns scattered neighbors and frightened away business.

We went to Iwaki for a week to work alongside a relief organization. We cooked, washed dishes, cleaned, and did anything we could to serve. That week, we felt one of the many aftershocks from the earthquake (it measured a 6.7) but we learned that these are not the aftershocks that are hardest to overcome.

Iwaki’s once bustling port has been empty since March. The fishing industry has taken an especially hard hit, leaving family-run businesses scrambling to survive. People hope the rumor that ships will return this month is true.

Driving along the coast one day, we passed a high school that is now too damaged to allow students inside its doors. At a bend in the road, our friend pulled over the van where a vendor sold ice cream and cold drinks.

“Let’s buy something from this man,” he said. “His store was destroyed by the tsunami and he’s trying to earn money to rebuild.”

We kept driving through Iwaki, into a ghost town of a neighborhood. So many empty, ruined homes. It was the first neighborhood to be evacuated because of the tsunami. And once the danger of tsunami had passed, it was evacuated again because of the radiation scare. All that remained now was a machine moving bricks from a demolished home’s foundation. A home where a family used to live.  It was surreal. We wept thinking of all those who lost family and everything they had known. We prayed for these families as we kept driving through the area.

Our last night in Iwaki, we helped to cook and prepare a barbecue on the waterfront. Five hundred people from the community gathered for food, music, to visit with friends and neighbors, and to feel a sense of safety in community. For some, it was a reunion with friends they hadn’t seen in months.

“I wanted to stay to help my friends clean up,” a young mother at the barbecue said. “But I have two young children so I stayed in the Philippines until we were out of danger from radiation.”

“Thank you so much for helping us,” another mom who had just returned to Iwaki said. “We have been humbled to see how many people from all over the world have come to help.”

“It isn’t the financial strain that is difficult for us,” she continued. “It’s the emotional scars we can’t overcome. Nothing is normal for us anymore. We are trying to move on with our lives, but it is very hard. We are still in shock.”