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Ukrainian evacuee in wheelchair dances way to happiness in Japan

Ukrainian evacuee Marta Ivashenko, left, dances with Nobuko Yotsumoto in Tokyo's Taito Ward on Sept. 3, 2022. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)=Click/tap photo for more images.

TOKYO -- A Ukrainian in a wheelchair who fled the Russian invasion has injected some happiness into her life in Japan with dancing, and is dreaming of doing the same in her home country, too.

    Ukrainian evacuees Marta Ivashenko and her mother Marina take a taxi after dance practice in Tokyo's Minato Ward, on July 2, 2022. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)=Click/tap photo for more images.

    Evacuee Marta Ivashenko, 20, joined a social dancing party in Tokyo on Sept. 3, showing off moves she'd been practicing for the event. The experience brought a smile to her face, and she said it was fun spinning around.

    Marta has cerebral palsy, and cannot use her legs. She was living with her parents in the city of Vasylkiv near the Ukrainian capital Kyiv before Moscow sent its troops over the border. They froze at the sounds of combat aircraft flying overheard and air raid sirens as Russian forces began driving towards the capital in late February.

    The family discussed their options, and Marta and her mother Marina, 45, decided to flee because Marta could not move quickly in her wheelchair if there was an emergency. Together with six friends, they arrived in Japan at the end of May. Mother and daughter spent a while in Tokyo before moving into municipal housing in Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture, in July.

    Ukrainian evacuees Marta Ivashenko and her mother Marina are seen in Gotemba, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Sept. 11, 2022. Marta's father calls them from Ukraine twice a day. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)=Click/tap photo for more images.

    A circle of support for them formed across Japan, and Nobuko Yotsumoto, 80, volunteered to be their guarantor. Yotsumoto, who has been promoting wheelchair dancing since the 1990s, had heard from Marta that she, too, dreamed of dancing. While Marta was in Tokyo, Yotsumoto took her to lessons held by Para Dance Creators, a dancing association for people with disabilities.

    Marta first encountered wheelchair dancing three years ago, when a younger girl performed at an event in Kyiv attended by children with disabilities. That lit her desire to dance, but there were no wheelchair dancing facilities or events near her home.

    So when the September social dancing party rolled around, Marta was ready to grab the opportunity. Her mother Marina said she appreciates the warm welcome Marta received from Japanese people, fulfilling her hope that Marta have the chance to do what she wants.

    Ukrainian evacuee Marta Ivashenko practices wheelchair dancing in Tokyo's Minato Ward on July 2, 2022. (Mainichi/Daisuke Wada)=Click/tap photo for more images.

    At the party, Marta put on a sign language dance display, though she'd been unable to practice enough due to an illness after leaving Tokyo. Upon seeing a wheelchair dancer active worldwide put on a performance, she exclaimed, "Sugoi!" (amazing!), a Japanese word she had just learned. She said that dancing lets her forget about her disability and that she wants to continue.

    Having made one dream come true in Japan, Marta and Marina now have another: to do wheelchair dancing in Vasylkiv. They have conversations on how they can make this happen. For now, though, they do not know when or if they'll be able to go home, but they said together that they believe Ukraine will be a peaceful, free country in the future.

    (Japanese original by Daisuke Wada, Photo Group)

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