Manzanar: Telling the Story (Part 3)



At the conclusion of the 42nd annual Manzanar Pilgrimage on April 30, Kathy Masaoka teaches ondo dance steps to a few of the Muslim students who attended the pilgrimage. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)




(Third in a three-part series)

Read Part 1

Read Part 2


Among the most supportive organizations of the Manzanar Pilgrimage, which was held on April 30, has been CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations), which has been sending hundreds of students from Northern California, Los Angeles and San Diego.

The San Diego group, which had a large Somali American contingent, came in two buses: one for the females and another for the males.

Suluy Abdirahmam, who attends both San Diego State and City College, was born in Somalia and arrived in the U.S. just after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

“It was a little hard,” said Abdirahmam. “People didn’t like us. Everybody thought that a person with a hijab had a bomb underneath it. It was just crazy.”

Former camp inmates and students sit in a circle during the discussion period at the MAD (“Manzanar at Dusk”) program. The Nisei participants shared first-hand accounts of their experiences during World War II. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

In high school, Abdhirahmam said other students would sometimes harass her, calling her names and telling her to “go back home.”

This was Abdhirahmam’s first visit to Manzanar. She was not aware that the U.S. had concentration camps before making the trip. However, although she did not want to diminish the hardships at Manzanar, she noted that it was nothing compared to what was happening in her homeland.

“When we had the war back home, we had it much worse,” said Abdirahmam. “At least the people here had food and a place to sleep. Back home, I know the country is getting better, but it was a disaster. So I guess seeing the things here was not very shocking to me because I’ve seen worse.”

Abdirahmam plans to finish school so she can return to her homeland and open a school. “I really want to go home because there is nothing like home,” she said.

Aisha Basheer, an Arroyo Paseo Charter High School student, was born in the U.S. to Somali immigrant parents.

“I didn’t know we had concentration camps for the Japanese people in California or in the United States, so I wanted to see one,” said Basheer, who upon arriving at Manzanar felt “really sad.”

Basheer said she plans to encourage other family members to attend next year’s pilgrimage.

Fatha Ali, a Mesa College student, has been living in the U.S. for the past five years. She came from Kenya but her family is originally from Somalia.

“It was very beneficial coming today,” said Ali. “Learning about what happened to the Japanese people here has been educational.”

Students come out from the bush after their hike through the grounds where the barracks stood at the Manzanar National Historic Site. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

Like Abdirahmam, Ali hopes to finish her education and return to her homeland.

For Nida Asalm and Myra Mughal, students at Fountain Valley High School, this was their second trip.

In talking about her first year here, Mughal said, “It was a real learning experience to actually be on the camp site and then meeting people who were actually in the camp. It was really eye-opening.”

“It’s kind of eerie to think that things that were here were completely demolished because they wanted to get rid of any traces of it,” said Asalm. “But seeing the pillar (i-rei-to or memorial monument in the camp cemetery) against the backdrop of the mountain is just really powerful.”

When asked about how they felt about certain Congress members accusing CAIR of being a terrorist organization, Mughal said, “It’s a matter of gaining knowledge because when you look at the facts, CAIR does not associate itself with any terrorists. In fact, it has released a lot of statements opposing terrorism. The main focus of CAIR is not only to battle prejudice against Muslims but to also bridge the cultural gap.”

“It’s an ideological gap that people seem to have,” said Asalm. “So it’s a matter of showing that although we may seem different, we’re, in essence, all the same.” Fumie Ishii Shimada, who is active with the Florin JACL-CAIR program, said, “CAIR is not a terrorist group. CAIR is a very understanding organization. But in every religion or in any race, there will be a certain number of problem people but they are not involved in CAIR. Terrorists are not CAIR members.”

Roy Vogel, a Vietnam veteran, attended his third Manzanar Pilgrimage. After his stint in the military, Vogel said he studied in Taiwan and became an Asian studies major when he returned to the states.

“I sort of wondered why we were getting into these crazy wars in Asia and why we weren’t learning from history,” said Vogel. “I studied a lot of geography too. You just don’t get good history lessons in high school. All the textbooks are phony baloney.

“A lot of people in California still don’t know about the Japanese American experience, but there are a lot more people outside of California who have never even heard about it. The government and political people seem to like to keep minority issues out of the textbooks.”

Japan Connection

Hiroshi Inomata, the new consul general of Japan from the San Francisco area, is carrying on a tradition started by his predecessor, Consul General Yasumasa Nagamine, who in 2009 made a historic first by attending both the Manzanar and Tule Lake pilgrimages.

Inomata, who started in the San Francisco office last September, said he’d read books, seen photographs and viewed films on the camps, but nothing compared to actually being at the site.

“I thought I could imagine what kind of life they had led here,” said Inomota. “But putting my foot on this ground, I found that this was beyond my imagination. Those people who stayed here were forced to stay here without any freedom and were segregated from the free world, but the Issei and Nisei persevered, and the third and fourth generations became the bridge between the two countries of Japan and the United States.”

Inomata also gave his heartfelt appreciation to all the support Japan has been receiving in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear power plant collapse.

“With the help of all the countries, especially from the United States, we are very much grateful for that help,” said Inomata. “I want to take this opportunity to express my gratitude for giving us compassion and prayers and assistance. We really appreciate it, especially from California, although we’ve received help from all over the world. So this is important and it is our responsibility and duty to further strengthen and deepen our relationship between Japan and the United States.”

An NHK crew was also present to film footage of former camp garden sites. Speaking in Japanese, NHK Program Director Yo Ijuin said they are planning to produce a program on the Japanese gardens created at Manzanar.

“We learned that Manzanar had Japanese gardens, so today we came to talk to people who remember those gardens and the gardeners who worked on them,” said Ijuin. “Mr. Harry Ueno created a big garden at Block 22, so we filmed that area.”

Manzanar at Dusk

With so many former camp inmates passing away, the Manzanar at Dusk (MAD) program this year had college students present oral history interviews as an effort to share with the students about the wartime experience.

“We’re in a position now where we want to hear the stories, but how can we do that when so many are passing away?” said Gann Matsuda, MAD co-coordinator, who noted that MAD had originally been started by Jenni Kuida, Ayako Hagihara, and San Francisco City College students.

Since MAD had its roots with college students, Matsuda said this year they had college students take the lead by presenting three oral history interviews.

Jaymie Takeshita, a member of UCLA’s Nikkei Student Union (NSU), shared the experiences of her grand-aunt, Pat Takeshita.

Ashley Honma, another UCLA NSU member, wrote the narrative of Jun Yamamoto. It was presented by Michael Amutan, who even used the Rafu Shimpo as a prop.

The last narrative was written by Mika Kennedy from UC San Diego, who shared about Shigeko Sese Uno.

Great Aunt’s Story

Manzanar Park Ranger Richard Potashin said a common visitors’ question was what would motivate someone to work at Manzanar during the war. To shed some light on this question, he invited Susanne Norton La Faver, who gave a detailed presentation of her great aunt, Margaret Matthew d’Ille Gleason, who had served as Manzanar’s director of community welfare.

“Most of or stories and exhibits focus, rightly so, on the Japanese Americans incarcerated at Manzanar, but there were also other groups here,” said Potashin. “The War Relocation Authority was the civilian agency entrusted with the establishment and operation of these camps. Most of the staff was Caucasian, so here at Manzanar, we’ve been interviewing folks who worked as WRA staff members. Some of them came from great distances. Others were local people. Even Owens Valley Pauite Indians were hired as administrative staff here throughout the history of the camps, and their stories are very significant to us.”

La Faver is currently working on a book about her great aunt, who had worked in Japan for 10 years as the secretary of the National YWCA before being transferred to Siberia. She was 63 when she came out to Manzanar to become the chief of community welfare and head counselor. Her responsibilities included overseeing Manzanar’s Childrens’ Village, the orphanage.

Four decades earlier, d’Ille  Gleason had met Ralph Merritt at UC Berkeley. The two crossed paths again at Manzanar, when Merritt was assigned as project director.

On Dec. 6 1942, a riot broke out at Manzanar, leaving two inmates dead and several injured. Merritt was under pressure to get tough but d’Ille Gleason suggested another option.

La Faver said each year at Christmas, her family recounts the story of how her great aunt helped restore peace at Manzanar. D’Ille Gleason reminded Merritt of his Christian faith and of the warehouse full of presents shipped to the camp by churches and friends. She suggested he distribute the presents and get the men into the mountains to cut Christmas trees.

Since she also oversaw Children’s Village, she proposed a party there on Christmas Eve. When the children started singing Christmas carols that eve, they heard other voices join in.

“Ralph got up and quietly walked out into the night,” said La Faver. “The clear moon and stars were shining over the Sierras. From out of the darkness, there came a great volume of Christmas carols that were being sung from the children outside the village.”

Merritt welcomed the sight. Then he, his wife Varinna and d’Ille Gleason walked through the camp, followed by hundreds of children and youths singing Christmas carols.

“Lights came on throughout the camp,” La Faver said, reading Merritt’s words. “Christmas greetings called out to us. Manzanar came alive. When we came to the spot where the riot had occurred and where men had been wounded and killed, we stood together, not in the spirit of anger, but in the Christmas spirit that recreated a new peace and good will at Manzanar.”

Closing Remarks

Bruce Embrey, son of Manzanar Committee founder Sue Kunitomi Embrey, recalled that when his parents first brought him to Manzanar as a child during the 1970s, there was nothing at the site except for the i-rei-to (literally, “soul-consoling tower”) in the cemetery and a deteriorating auditorium.

At that time, a few hundreds people came out. Most were former inmates or friends and families of former inmates. Today, participants have swelled to over 1,000 people with people coming from all nationalities and ages.

Embrey encouraged attendees to educate themselves about the history and not be afraid to share the experience with others. “We tell this painful story, not to shame anyone, not to make anyone feel uncomfortable,” he said.  “Many people said ‘shikata ga nai.’ It can’t be helped. Don’t talk about this. You’re bringing shame to our community.

“Many people outside of the Japanese American community didn’t want it raised because it was an embarrassment. The truth can be painful but it is also useful. When you’re a small child and you touch the hot stove, you experience pain. You don’t touch that hot stove again….

“Our legacy, as a community that was systematically deprived of our civil rights, is to make sure America does not forget what happened. Our legacy is to ensure no other group, be they Muslim, Arab or any other group, be vilified and denied their civil and constitutional rights. That is our legacy.”




  1. Wonderful of CAIR to support this pilgrimage and spread the word. That is how I found out. We have to remember this horrific time in US history. I am in California and we should talk about it even more. This will repeat itself if we do not keep it recent memory and sight. Watch, they will try it in Arizona with their Latino citizens. They are laying the ground work now with propaganda and hate speech. We are not learning. We have to stick together and support all human rights and civil rights.

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