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Japan honours SA’s under-the-radar superhero

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How did a Jewish South African come to be honoured by the Emperor of Japan? Though Rescue South Africa (Rescue SA) Chief Executive Ian Scher prefers to stay out of the spotlight, he and his non-governmental organisation were recently bestowed with The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette on 22 March 2022. It’s the highest award given to any non-Japanese citizen, excluding heads of state and royalty.

The award is a gesture of Japan’s gratitude for Rescue SA’s response to the Great North East Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011. It also acknowledges the humanitarian work that Rescue SA does worldwide and the capacity-building the organisation facilitates in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.

“The fact that we’re able to help our fellow man, save lives, and try help put communities back together is the real reward,” said Scher in response to the news. “But Rescue SA humbly accepts this huge honour.”

Scher’s connection to the Land of the Rising Sun goes back to 2011, when he and his Rescue SA team headed into the eye of the storm to provide humanitarian assistance in the wake of the tsunami and earthquake disaster. “It was significant because this was the first time Africa was aiding Japan, instead of the other way around. The Japanese saw no greater gesture of friendship than coming to their aid in their hour of greatest need. It was meaningful, and they appreciated it greatly.”

Ten years later, Scher hasn’t forgotten what he saw there. “The suffering and devastation is difficult to imagine. It was like a movie or a war zone. The normal mind can’t visualise the scale of such natural disasters. Without overdramatising, it was total annihilation of what was there. And you’re scrambling and picking your way through it, trying to find people’s mortal remains or save lives. It was totally surreal.”

They worked just outside the exclusion zone of the Fukushima nuclear reactor explosion. “We’re always cautious, and we do what we can to take mitigated and calculated risks,” he says. At the same time, he acknowledges that the work is dangerous. Marion, his devoted wife of 40 years, and their two adult children have watched him head off on every mission in his two decades of heading up Rescue SA. They support him every step of the way, for which he’s eternally grateful.

“Ultimately this work is a team effort,” says Scher. “Without a team, there’s nothing I can really do. So I told the [Japanese] ambassador that I’m accepting the award on behalf of Rescue SA.” He’s humbly proud, and notes that the work they do is an opportunity not afforded to many. “To be able to return the mortal remains of someone to their family is a spiritual undertaking. And sometimes we’re lucky enough to save lives. That’s the real honour.”

The award will be housed in a memorabilia room at Nelson Mandela University (NMU) in Gqeberha, where Rescue SA’s head office is located, along with a cache of 60 tons of rescue equipment which is used on an almost daily basis to train students from NMU. This is part of a four year BTech degree offered by NMU training the paramedics of tomorrow. The cache is arguably one of the most comprehensive emergency services equipment caches in sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition, the organisation trains all kinds of people in emergency and disaster response across the SADC region. For example, it works with mining companies to ensure they have their own well-trained emergency responders. Rescue SA’s training modules cover, among others, structural collapse, confined-space rescue, aviation rescue, and fire and wilderness search and rescue. The income from this training goes back into the organisation, allowing it to keep its doors open. Though Scher is reluctant to admit it, he hasn’t taken a salary in two years. He’s also reluctant to ask for donations, knowing how much need there is in the world. However, he would always appreciate generosity from anyone who can contribute.

Being at the scene of numerous natural disasters, Scher says he has seen the effects of climate change. “There’s no doubt that weather is becoming more extreme because of climate change. All over the world, from Australia to Europe, natural disasters are caused by weather. It’s a worldwide phenomenon. We’re turning out [going on aid missions] for flooding more than ever before, and it’s becoming even more extreme. Madagascar has already had four cyclones this year. And when you see the effects – it’s hectic.”

Seeing pain, loss, and desperation on so many missions hasn’t made him cynical. Rather, it has led him to appreciate every blessing, big and small. He loves what he does and wouldn’t change it for the world. “Happiness isn’t a place; it’s a state of mind. When you see how hard things can be, it makes you more humble, and you realise that you should find happiness in the things that cost nothing,” he says.

He will never stop, and jokes that even when he’s ill, his wife just has to say ‘earthquake’ to make him jump out of bed. He’s excited about the future, and envisions a project in which Rescue SA will train ordinary people to help themselves in the face of disasters. “For example, in two days, we can train people to do shore-based rescues in flood-prone areas. We’ll help communities help themselves.”

He’s always thinking about improvement and continuity. And though he hopes to create a legacy, he emphasises that not everyone has to be an emergency responder to make a difference. “It’s not what you do, but that you do something. In my opinion, helping an old lady to do her shopping is of the same value as heading into a disaster zone.”

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