Homemaker Akiko Ijitsu joined her friends for a hike up Gasing Hill in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, one Sunday and found out just how unfit she was. That was the first time she went hiking.
“My friends were doing well but I was struggling. Then, when they wanted to go onto the hanging bridge, I gave up and sat on a bench to wait for them,” recalls Ijitsu, a former magazine and catalogue editor in Japan, who first came to Malaysia as a tourist in 1993.
“That experience made me realise that I really needed to start exercising.”
So Ijitsu started getting fit by walking in the park near her house, which she did for one month. After that, she started jogging. Since then, she has had no problems hiking up Gasing Hill. She also joined running events held on KL car-free Sunday mornings.
Then, one day in November the same year, Ijitsu’s friend – part of the volunteer group under InterNations (an expat community group) – asked her to help him ferry eight Afghan refugee kids to go hiking as his car could not fit all of them. Ijitsu agreed and did the same the following Sunday as well.
As the third Sunday neared, she volunteered to organise the hikes without being asked. “The kids were so lovely and I did not mind doing it. So I became the main person to take the kids hiking while my friend assisted me instead,” says Ijitsu, who has a son aged 19 and a daughter, 22.
Since then, besides Gasing Hill, Ijitsu has taken the children hiking to many other locations including Ketumbar Hills (Cheras), Kembara Hills (Ampang) and Puchong Hill. Ijitsu is joined by her friends, and friends of theirs as well, who are of different nationalities.
“It’s become an international gathering with people from different nationalities hiking together, regardless of race or religion,” says Ijitsu, 54. “It’s good for the kids to experience meeting different people,” says Ijitsu.
Since September 2017, Ijitsu’s Iranian neighbour has also been organising futsal activities for the kids, aged 10-17, every last Sunday of the month. Ijitsu’s husband, whom she met at the Butterworth train station in 1993 while she was travelling in Malaysia, once commented that there were many Malaysians who needed help as well.
“I understand how he feels, but I am a foreigner and I can relate to the refugee children, although living here as an expatriate and as a refugee is not the same,” admits Ijitsu. “But everybody needs a (safe) place to live,” she emphasises. “(The kids) feel they have nothing much to do here while living as refugees, and I think these activities are something they can look forward to.”
Ijitsu’s wish is that the children will have a good future. “I hope they don’t lose their dream of what they want to be when they grow up. I hope they keep having their dream,” she says.