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Syrian-born assembly member aims to broaden mindsets

TOKYO >> In September, newly elected assembly member Nour Soltan posed his first question to his colleagues in Shonai, Yamagata prefecture.

“What does the town think about accepting foreign workers?”

His commitment to the issue was evident in his voice.

Soltan, 50, successfully ran for a seat in the assembly last summer. Born in Syria and raised in Egypt, he is now determined to live life as a Japanese. He even sports a topknot in homage to the sumo wrestling he loves.

Soltan relocated to Egypt with his family when he was 12 because of the constant instability in his Syrian homeland. In Egypt he swam competitively and coached Paralympic swimmers for the 1996 Atlanta and 2000 Sydney Games.

In April 2001 he applied for the Japan International Cooperation Agency’s invitation program and spent 10 months in Tsuruoka, Yamagata prefecture, teaching swimming to children.

Unable to forget Japan’s natural beauty and cuisine, he decided to live in Japan and returned to the country in 2003.

After studying swim training at the University of Tsukuba, he applied to work at 10 swimming schools in the Kanto region, but he kept getting rejected. “Try elsewhere,” the schools said. Even when he was given access to managers, he was told that foreigners need not apply.

Soltan became depressed by the deep divide he experienced. He was saddened most by his inability to utilize his training as a swimming instructor, which he worked hard to develop.

He settled in Tsuruoka, where he has acquaintances, and found work at a car parts factory. In 2007 he opened an Arab restaurant and ran it for four years. He has also been involved in the used car business.

Soltan became a Japanese citizen in 2013 and made the move to Shonai in 2016, where he had found a traditional farmhouse that seemed like a comfortable place to live. The move led him down the path of politics.

In a town with a population of about 20,000, only 15 people ran to fill 16 seats on the town assembly. When a by-election was announced last summer to fill the remaining seat, Soltan recalled his late father’s words: “Become a politician and help people in need.”

“His father, an agricultural engineer in Egypt, was a man whom his many friends could depend upon.”

He died in the summer of 2020 at the age of 76 after contracting COVID-19.

Soltan could not visit his ailing father, but he was able to call him a few days before his death. It was then that his father advised him to enter politics and serve others.

Soltan decided to run for the seat three days before the five-day official campaign period kicked off. He ran against another newcomer, traveling through the town with posters on his car. At first he was unnerved when few people responded as he called out on the streets, “Let’s change the town for the good.” But after three days of persistence, people began responding, waving to him and cheering him on.

Perhaps there was an expectation that a foreign-born assembly member could revolutionize the town: He garnered 5,269 votes, winning the election by about 600 ballots.

Soltan’s election victory made news in the Middle East, and he was contacted by a Syrian man living in the Kansai region who learned about him through someone who had seen the news report. The man told Soltan he was refused treatment at a hospital because he was a foreigner. Soltan intervened, and the hospital promised to see the man.

The incident, reminding him of the depths of prejudice, strengthened his resolve to narrow the gap between Japanese and foreigners.

FOREIGN RESIDENTS IN JAPAN

Over the past two decades, the number of foreigners living in Japan has grown by 1.2 million people. In 2000, 1.69 million foreigners were settled in the country; by 2020 that number had increased to 2.89 million residents, according to government statistics.

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