TOKYO -- Relindis Mai Ekei, a woman from Cameroon, was detained twice at Japanese immigration facilities for overstaying her visa. During this time, cancer began to eat at her body. The immigration authorities granted her temporary release, but she faced high medical bills for her cancer treatment as she has no health insurance. With the support of pastors and others, she continued her fight against the disease, but with no hope of being cured, she was discharged from hospital.
On the night of Nov. 16, 2020, 11 days after Mai was discharged, one of her supporters, Yoriyoshi Abe, a 39-year-old pastor with Grace Garden Church in Ebina, Kanagawa Prefecture, found her sitting alone in the parking lot of a convenience store. Holding a plastic bag of clothes in one hand and a bag of medication in the other, she smiled weakly and said, "I'm homeless."
When she returned to her apartment after leaving the hospital, she found she had been locked out for failing to pay her rent. For more than 10 days, she had slept variously at a friends' house, an internet cafe, and a love hotel.
Another supporter, Masataka Nagasawa, 67, of the city of Saitama, said, "She had terminal cancer and was homeless. It'd have been diabolical to leave such a person alone."
Nagasawa is a Christian from Hokkaido. While working full-time at a company, he has also continued to provide medical consultations and support for foreigners. In 2013, he established a nonprofit organization, the north Kanto medical consultation association, in Ota, Gunma Prefecture.
"There are people suffering from kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer, colon cancer and so on. In the past year alone, we have supported 10 foreigners with cancer, including Mai. All of them were uninsured and couldn't afford the medical bills," Nagasawa said.
According to the activist, the medical care provided by the immigration agency is usually inadequate. "In many cases, when the illness becomes serious enough to be life-threatening, they put the person on temporary release. This is apparently because it would be inconvenient for them if those people died in custody," Nagasawa continued.
Eventually, a convent run by the Adoratrices Catholic order in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward accepted Mai. The convent runs a shelter for women in need. Sister Atsuko Kano, 63, said, "At first, I was unsure whether we could accept Mai." There are 25 sisters in the convent, but most of them are in their 70s and 80s, with the oldest being 100. They thought that Mai was too big to be able to care for adequately. Nevertheless, they made the decision, because "our role is to provide a place for women who have nowhere else to go."
After moving into the shelter, Mai was able to walk on her own and cook for herself at first, but her condition gradually worsened. She was visited by many supporters.
Yoshiko Hagiwara, 73, a former professor at Meiji University who visited the convent as a volunteer and supported Mai, recalled, "She was compassionate and always cheerful. When another supporter was down with stomach pain, she would ask if the person was OK, even though she had severe cancer."
Even on days when Hagiwara was unable to visit, she frequently communicated with Mai via social media on her smartphone. "When I get better, I want to travel to Japan again," Mai wrote, hopeful until the end.
On Nov. 26 last year, Mai was examined again at Kitasato University Hospital and was told by the doctor that "your cancer had progressed to the point where you could die tomorrow." When Abe translated this into English, Mai replied, "I see," in Japanese. Mai had been acting cheerful until then. This was the only time her cheerfulness disappeared.
(Japanese original by Ken Uzuka, Osaka Photo Department)
(This is Part 2 of a three-part series)