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Sun Valley Middle students learn harsh lesson in American history

Maya Adronick, 14, and Tyler Burrage, both 14-year-old eighth graders in Michael O'Hagan's social studies class at Sun Valley Middle School, have some one-on-one time with Roy and Yuri Kita to ask additional questions following their presentation about being held in Japanese Internment Camps in America during World War II.

The Sun Valley Middle School eighth-graders sat in total silence, listening with obvious disbelief while a husband and wife of Japanese decent detailed living in a "concentration camp" in the United States.

Roy and Yuri Kita, who currently live in Sun City, SC, were teenagers when their families were taken into custody by the American government and placed in Japanese Internment Centers. He and his family were sent to Wyoming, while she and her family were sent to Idaho.

Sun Valley social studies teacher Michael O'Hagan was made aware of the Kitas by his student, Kyle Johnson, who had heard about the couple through his church. He wanted to bring in speakers, as is often done in his class, which helped make their lesson on the Japanese internment come alive.

After Pearl Harbor was bombed in Dec. 7, 1941, the United States government rounded up anyone of Japanese ancestry living in the western part of the country (approximately 120,000) and placed them in hastily-constructed internment camps.

This was the result of Executive Order 9066 signed on February 19, 1942, soon after the beginning of World War II, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The internment camps were officially called "relocation centers," but many who lived in them called them concentration camps. They were located in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado and Arkansas.

In May of 1942, Yuri and her family were told that they had only a few days to gather their belongings before they would be sent to one of the centers, and that they could only bring what they could carry on their backs.

"We had no idea where we were going, what sort of weather we were going to encounter, how long we were going to be gone, or if we would ever come back," she told students.

Then, Yuri challenged the students to imagine how this would impact them. "When you go home today and look at all that you possess, imagine if you had to dispose of everything in a week. What would you do?" she asked. "What would you choose to take if you were only allowed what you could carry? Imagine the heartbreak of having to find a home for your pets, and those who couldn't, had to just abandon them."

When they arrived at the camps, families walked into small apartments located in tarpaper-covered barracks of simple frame construction that had no plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind. The children were allowed to stay with their parents, but after about a year, both Yuri and Roy (Yuri's future husband that she had yet to meet), were "sponsored" by church groups to leave the encampments and continue their education elsewhere.

"I left with my girlfriend when we were sponsored by an Episcopal Church that sent us to school in Denver," Yuri said. "My parents remained at the camp until it closed three years later. I had never been away from home or away from my parents. I really had homesickness bad."

Many lost titles to their homes, businesses or farmlands because mortgages and taxes became impossible to pay. "We lost everything," Yuri told the students. "When the camp closed, my parents had nothing to go back to, so they came to Denver to be with me."

Roy graduated from high school and enlisted in the US Navy, ultimately being stationed in Japan. Yuri went to work in Gen. Douglas MacArthur's headquarters in Tokyo, where she met Roy. The two were married and had four children.

The Kitas frequently share their story in speaking engagements across the country. Roy said his hope is that by sharing with the students and with others, "something like this will never again happen on American soil. We have talked to thousands of people," he said.

If the students at Sun Valley Middle are any indication of the impact the Kitas' message had, it won't be soon forgotten. "It was really interesting," Johnson said. "It was like we were reading a book, but they were reading it to us. It was like they were giving us the story of their entire lives. It was much better than just reading a book in class."

Two of O'Hagan's students approached the Kitas after the presentation with additional questions. Maya Adronick and Tyler Burrage, both 14-year-old eighth graders in O'Hagan's social studies class, were fascinated by the first-hand accounts of the camps.

"It would be very scary," Tyler said. "It would be overwhelming, surreal. It makes you realize that you shouldn't take things for granted. It also makes you respect your parents more, because Mr. and Mrs. Kita were separated from their parents when they were our age."

"When we came in to listen to them, I thought we would be bored," Maya said. "We read some books on these concentration camps, but I didn't get the books very much. But when they started speaking, I understood more about all the camps and everything. They remember everything. I guess these kinds of memories don't fade away. They always stay with you. It was very interesting. It's not just history. It's their lives. It's not easy to forget."

When asked if she harbored bad feelings toward the United States government, Yuri said, "Sometimes people ask me if I am bitter. I would not be totally honest if I said, 'No.' But my bitterness has faded through the years. And life is too short to live in bitterness."

Click here for more information about the Japanese Internment Camps.

Written by: Deb Coates Bledsoe, UCPS Communications Coordinator
Posted: Jun 13, 2011 by Deb Coates Bledsoe

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