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WWII internees pay it forward

They are complete strangers, born of different cultures nearly eight decades apart.

But a twist of historic fate has bound Fred Hoshiyama, a 94-year-old Japanese American, and Chimchanbo Uk, an 18-year-old Cambodian native: The families of both have experienced displacement amid political turmoil.

Hoshiyama was forcibly removed from his Northern California home and sent to a bleak internment camp in Utah after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. There he languished until the American Friends Service Committee and other groups organized a program to free more than 4,500 Japanese Americans from the camps, place them in colleges and award them scholarships.

Uk’s mother lived through three years of rule by the murderous Khmer Rouge, witnessing killings and starvation as she and her siblings were forced from the cities to toil on the land in rural Cambodia. She made her way to the United States in 1996, bringing her children.

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The two communities plan to join their stories today as Hoshiyama and other Japanese Americans present scholarships to Uk and other Southeast Asian students at a ceremony in Long Beach.

The scholarship program reflects the Japanese value of giri, a sense of duty and obligation that compels those who receive benevolence to return it to others, community organizers say.

“We got help so we want to help others,” said Hoshiyama, a Culver City resident. “You have to model something if you believe in it strongly.”

Uk said she is overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers.

“They have no clue who I am,” Uk said. “It is so selfless, and I am so grateful.”

The scholarship program, called the Nisei Student Relocation Commemorative Fund Inc., was started in 1980 by a group of largely West Coast Japanese Americans who ended up in New England after the war.

Two of them were Yosh and Nobu Hibino, Bay Area residents who had attended UC Berkeley at the time war broke out. Both were sent to Topaz internment camp in central Utah, a place fellow internee and Berkeley alumnus Hoshiyama described as a sweltering, shadeless stretch of desert and sagebrush.

Physically, Hoshiyama said, he got used to the dreary routine of communal confinement. The psychological wounds of being targeted and treated as an enemy alien by his own country took longest to heal, he said.

But when word reached him that the American Friends Service Committee, YMCAs and YWCAs and others had put together a college program for young Japanese Americans like himself, he was elated. The National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, formed in 1942, raised funds for scholarships, cut through security protocols and red tape and persuaded at-times reluctant university leaders to accept the students, organizers said.

After four months at Topaz, Hoshiyama became one of the first students to leave for college. He attended Springfield College in Massachusetts, earning a master’s degree in education.

Asked how he felt when he walked out of camp as a free man bound for college, Hoshiyama leaned back in his chair, flung out his arms and let out a long “Ohhhh.”

“It felt like night and day, from being imprisoned to the freedom of being a man again,” he said.

Yosh Hibino, 89, earned a master’s degree in commerce from the University of Texas while his wife, Nobu, graduated from Boston University with an undergraduate degree in psychology, said their daughter, Jean.

The couple stayed in the New England area and began socializing with other Japanese Americans there. As they began to realize that most of them were recipients of the wartime college program, they came up with the idea to give back with a scholarship program for others.

With stories of Vietnamese boat people filling the news at the time, the founders proposed that the fund help Southeast Asians displaced by war rather than their own relatively assimilated and economically comfortable community, said Jean Hibino, whose mother died in 1998.

“The Southeast Asian students reflected their own wartime experience of kids whose lives and educations were disrupted by war,” she said.

So far, the fund has granted scholarships ranging from $500 to $2,000 each to 540 students, with total disbursement at $503,800. The fund rotates among cities; this year the recipients were chosen from Long Beach.

Uk, one of this year’s 30 recipients, has maintained a 3.5 grade-point average despite family troubles and a part-time job at a fast-food restaurant she needs to help supplement the family income.

As she prepares to accept her scholarship today, Uk said she hopes to continue the cycle of giving back. Her dream is to enter college, graduate in international studies and work for the United Nations.

Her sources of inspiration are Oprah Winfrey, for her charitable work in Africa, and her Khmer language teacher, who collects recyclables during the year to buy food and school supplies for Cambodian children each summer.

“Although I myself have struggled a bit in the past, I was fortunately given the opportunity to strive for a better future,” she wrote in her scholarship essay. “I feel every individual should deserve the opportunity that was introduced to me.”

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com


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