Navy veteran is working to heap holiday cheer on Ukrainian refugees in Japan
Stars and Stripes November 30, 2023
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Navy veteran Ervin Lawrence — a dead ringer for Santa Claus — is gathering gifts donated at bases across Japan in hopes of spreading some Christmas cheer to Ukrainian refugees in the country.
Instead of a sleigh and eight reindeer, Lawrence and his wife, Rika, drive a van around Japan for Santa Delivery, a charity they started several years ago to help those still struggling after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan in March 2011.
They were at Yokota, the home of U.S. Forces Japan in western Tokyo, on Thursday collecting donations that they’ll deliver to the Embassy of Ukraine in Tokyo on Dec. 7. The pair said they gathered enough candy to fill 400 goodie bags.
“Our charity is putting smiles on people’s faces, and just bringing in a little bit of Christmas cheer,” Lawrence told Stars and Stripes in an interview at the base visitors’ center.
More than 2,100 Ukrainian refugees have been living in Japan since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, according to the Immigration Services Agency’s website. About half of those live in the Kanto region, which includes Tokyo and several U.S. military bases.
“They’re stuck in a country that they don’t understand the language and terrified about what’s happening back home,” Lawrence said. “And this just gives them happiness and brings smiles to people’s faces.”
Lawrence said Santa Delivery has also collected donations from Camp Zama, where he worked for 23 years as a functional technology specialist; Misawa Air Base; and off-base communities and companies across Japan.
So far, they’ve received 139 toys from Mattel in Japan; 100 Christmas ornaments; 500 Christmas cards; and 50 Christmas cakes, which are a tradition in Japan.
They’re hoping to reach a goal of 750 wrapped candies. So far, about 250 have been donated. Some people have given cash to help Santa Delivery out with things like gas money and tolls.
The Lawrences also started a GoFundMe, Santa Delivery 2023, to help them support their mission. Donations go toward logistics.
“We appreciate any and all donations that we can get,” Lawrence said.
Santa Delivery started in 2016 after the Lawrences participated in a U.S. military charity run that raised money to buy sports equipment for children orphaned by the 2011 disaster.
“We fell in love with the area and started Santa Delivery that following Christmas,” said Lawrence, an eight-year Navy veteran who said he served as a boiler technician between 1983 and 1991.
The charity has been getting translation and other help from Iryna Makovskia, who works for Ukraine Mental Health Interaction Center Himawari in Tokyo. The center offers refugees a place to gather, speak in their native language, do Ukrainian activities and learn about Japanese culture.
“When people help Ukraine, my heart is filled with gratitude and respect,” she told Stars and Stripes in a recent text message. “Christmas is a great time to believe in magic. It is important to bring Ukrainians together so that they do not feel lonely but feel like a big Ukrainian family in Japan.”