Japanese footballer who played in Ukraine reaches out to refugees
TOKYO (Kyodo) — As the first Japanese soccer player to sign with a Ukrainian team, Yasuhiro Kato hopes to give something back to the country he considers his second home as it reels from its invasion by Russia.
Now retired, Kato played for FC Hoverla-Zakarpattya Uzhhorod in the 2012-13 season and also spent time with a club in neighboring Poland, which has become the destination for most of the refugees who have fled Ukraine.
“For me, Russia’s war against Ukraine is not a problem occurring in a distant and foreign country,” Kato, 36, told Kyodo News in a recent interview.
“As someone who has a deep connection to Ukraine and Poland, there has to be a way I can help. I want to help refugees find jobs and find other ways to support and enable their socio-economic independence,” he said.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, launched three months ago, has created one of the biggest refugee crises of modern times. More than 6.5 million people have left Ukraine to escape war, according to figures released Monday by the UN refugee agency.
In mid-March, Kato flew to Olsztyn, a historic town in northern Poland, where he used football to help 13 young refugees find a sense of belonging.
Football “allowed us to play together and laugh together,” Kato said. “The kids said they had a lot of fun. Their parents were smiling, and I think that gave them some relief from their trauma. Football really is a universal language that brings people together.”
Kato always knew that football was more than just a game.
After hanging up his boots in 2017, he started football clinics and a training program in his native Gamagori, in central Japan’s Aichi prefecture, to provide children with an opportunity for social development and reinforcement. confidence, not to mention pleasure.
Polish club OKS Stomil Olsztyn, where he played between 2013 and 2015, helped him organize activities for refugee children. Kato approached the team from the city of Olsztyn after coming up with the idea from another club that had started a similar initiative.
He also distributed soccer cleats and apparel to refugee children participating in the events through donations he collected in Japan.
Kato said he felt compelled to give something back to the people of a country that gave them so much. His Ukrainian supporters flocked to the station to bid him farewell as he left for his new club, a moment he said he would never forget.
The athlete-turned-philanthropist now runs a children’s football school in Gamagori. In August, he hopes to see Poland again, but this time with the children of his Gamagori club.
He said he confirmed the safety of his former teammates in Ukraine and their families via social media, but his heart breaks seeing the scale of the human tragedy they face.
Kato believes that small individual efforts can go a long way in helping the emergency situation in Ukraine and has created a charity website (https://kato-soccer-shien.jp/） where he shares photos that demonstrate the impact from his work.
He is also active in his home community and involved in the construction of a wellness center in Gamagori which is scheduled to open this fall and which he hopes will become a social hub and shared space. for local residents and some Ukrainians evacuated to Japan.