The New Republic 

Some 6,000 Marshall Islanders have established a beachhead in Northwest Arkansas, lured by jobs and better care for health problems the U.S. helped create.

Dozens of sandals and tennis shoes are scattered about the front stoop of a beige duplex in central Springdale. Fourteen Marshall Island immigrants live here. The ritual is the same here as it is back in the islands: remove your shoes, a quick knock and walk in. "Yokwe!" says elder, Hiram John -- an ancient greeting which variously can be translated as: hello, I love you, or I recognize the rainbow in you. He sits down on a sofa next to his slumbering teenage grandson. He shakes him several times - hard -- but the boy only groans and turns over. The television chirps an upbeat morning program, while children jump around on a rumpled bed in a back room. Their moms and dads are gone to work. The tiny home is uncluttered and clean. Soft blankets cover the floor. Artificial flowers cascade from the walls, which are covered with posters of whales and oceanscapes. An ornate wind chime made from shells, called libbukwe, curls from the ceiling. The John family are among an estimated 6,000 citizens from the Republic of the Marshall Islands who have immigrated to Northwest Arkansas in the past decade. Most have settled in Springdale, in enclaves near the downtown business district as well as on the east side of town. Arkansas is believed the have the largest concentrated population of Marshallese outside the islands themselves. Like thousands of Hispanic immigrants before them, islanders have come to the Land of Opportunity to work in area factories, educate their kids and lift themselves out of poverty. But unlike their mainstreamed Hispanic counterparts, Marshallese -- by their dress, unusual language and tropical disposition -- are farther removed. Theirs is an open communal society where children can wander unmolested among island neighborhoods, food is easily shared and everyone takes care of each other -- all in sometimes stark contrast to Americans who sequester their children, lock down their homes and cars, and schedule visitors by daybook. Islander enclaves have long been established in Hawaii, California, Texas and Oregon but Northwest Arkansas, with plentiful jobs, has become the most popular destination of all. Abudant jobs in the poultry industry is the main explanation. Absorbing another culture, however, is no easy task. The community has mostly come to terms with the Hispanic influx, but this entirely new group brought a steep language barrier and complex medical challenges. Islanders carry tuberculosis and Hansen's Disease (formerly known as leprosy). Cancer is epidemic, caused by a decade of U.S. nuclear weapons testing in the Marshalls after World War II. The Marshall Island health care system is inadequate, so immigrants seek better care stateside. And because of a special compact with the U.S. government, they are able to travel here with only a passport. Most choose to retain their Marshall Island citizenship, including 65-year-old Hiram John from Enewetak Atoll. A retired elementary school teacher, he moved to the Ozarks four years ago to be with his children. John speaks softly in his native dialect -- a resonant monotone with staccato trills. Ninety-eight percent of islanders still use their indigenous language. "When I was a small boy, I did not go to school," he says. "We lived simply, eating coconuts and breadfruit and fish caught from the sea." John also remembers running away from Japanese soldiers, whose nation occupied his homeland before World War II. Later he would run away from American soldiers who took control of the Marshalls in 1945. Sparkling archipelago Discovered by Spain in the 1500s, "Aelon Kein"-- or "our islands"-- were later christened the Marshall Islands in the 1700s, after English captain and explorer, John Marshall. Located between Hawaii and Australia in the Pacific Ocean, the Republic of the Marshall Islands consists of two chains of 29 coral atolls and 15 sand-laced islands --- all a mere six feet above sea level, most less than a mile and half wide. "One has to admire the skills of ancient Marshallese who were able to make a living on unstable land subject to cataclysmic storms and typhoons," says Dirk Spennemen, a former Republic of the Marshall Islands archeologist. Arkansas Marshallese often fly the 6,000 miles back home. Long-distance travel is in their blood. Ancient Micronesian explorers who settled the islands were expert mariners who routinely followed the Pacific currents northward along the coast of the Americas, into a wide arc then downward back home. "My ancestors were roaming the Pacific -- reading the stars and patterns of waves and currents -- while Europeans still thought the world was flat," says Saimon Milne, grinning. Milne moved here three years ago from Rongelap Atoll. He supports his wife and extended family by working full time as a security guard at a local community center. With deep brown eyes and thick black hair flecked with gray, he exudes a certain authority. "Our oral histories have been passed down through generations," he says, in his deep voice. "And I share these stories with the people here." The Milne's brick bungalow is decorated with large embroidered palm fans and woven mats. Family photographs line the walls, but -- typical of islander homes -- high up along the ceiling. Milne says although a two-party democracy, the islands are still ruled by a hierarchy of clan chiefs, with land controlled by an intact matriarchy. Seafaring men sometimes never returned, so women have always maintained title to property. The coconut palm is central to the Marshall's economy, with dried copra a top export. White sands and an aquamarine surf featuring sea turtles, dolphins and occasional whales, draw thousands of tourists. "When I was a kid, a lot of whales would wash on shore," says Saimon Milne. "The meat would supply islanders for months. Even if the outside turned rotten, the meat inside would still be red." Milne paused, wrinkling his nose. "The old generation still likes the whale meat. But me, I prefer sardines." Islanders also subsist on breadfruit, fresh coconut, taro, arrowroot, yams, pumpkins, tapioca, bananas and fish. In the Ozarks islanders resort to local Asian markets. They've also discovered Sam's Club, where they can buy large quantities of rice, fish and chicken. The traditional American salad has been an acquired taste for islanders unaccustomed to leafy greens and vegetables. Potlucks are common, typically at social and church functions. Ancient Marshallese people also held such ceremonial feasts, but early French and Spanish missionaries put a stop to that. "I don't want to say bad things about those missionaries," Saimon Milne says in a low voice, "but when they first came, they called us superstitious people -- pagans." He says islanders were forced to cover up in long dresses and pants. "And islanders were forbidden to practice their ancient dances," Milne says. "We could not shake our hips because it is a sin." Winter luau Despite two centuries of religious indoctrination, islanders still shake their hips -- sort of. On a frigid Friday night last February, the Springdale Armory was jammed with Marshallese. Women and girls wore long polyester print dresses, men and boys, flowered shirts. The luau was scheduled to start at 6 p.m., but typical of "island time," families began arriving around eight. "The Navigator Band" warmed up the crowd with a fusion of salsa, Christian and island music. Families streamed in carrying boxes of covered dishes. Dinner wouldn't be served for hours. The crowd hushed as Benta Jonaie, a local Marshallese Church of Christ deacon, grabbed a microphone to offer a blessing. Periodically during the evening, a troupe of girls, wearing flowered wreaths in their hair and ankle-length blue and white frocks, filed out and stood silently. Loud synthesized percussion and chant filled the air. The barefoot girls stepped side to side in place, gracefully shifting their hips beneath their dresses, motioning their hands. "This dancing is telling story," said teenager, Juanita Lokebol. "But this is not a hula. This is our dancing -- which makes this culture very special." Lokebal said parents are good about teaching their kids, both immigrant and American-born, about the old ways. Aba Langrine agreed. Tall and handsome, the 23-year-old easily could have been out cruising town. "No matter what, I will always honor my heritage," he says. "I am proud to be Marshallese." Wearing her hair in two long dark braids, 19-year-old Christina Jorkan said Marshallese families are close-knit. "Families are really important," Jorkan said. "We stay with our parents forever. We love our moms and dads!" Jorkan said mothers teach children the old cultural values. "Our tradition and culture are important," she said smiling. "And -- oh my gosh, I think we are the most respectful people ever!" "So at first, teachers may have a hard time trying to get them to talk in class," says Anita Iban, an English as a second language instructional assistant at Parson's Elementary in Springdale. Of the school's 600 students, 102 are Marshallese. Iban, a mother of seven, says island children are taught to not speak unless they are spoken to. "We know we are Marshallese. We don't act differently. because we are in a different country." Anita Iban immigrated from the Marshalls to California as a child. She and her husband, an Assembly of God minister, relocated to Springdale because of the growing Marshallese population "Us Marshallese, we like to cling to each other," she says laughing. "Plus, we have experienced little prejudice since moving here," Iban says. "We are getting along with the community, and the school system is really willing to work with our kids." "Even Kessai Note, president of the Marshall Islands has been here twice and was impressed!" she says proudly. Islanders are now everywhere it seems, in the marketplace, schools and civic centers. They are so self-sufficient and unobtrusive, their initial presence took Springdale Mayor Jerre Van Hoose by surprise. "At first I wasn't aware any Marshallese were here," says Van Hoose. "until my son starting talking about them being in his class." The mayor has made a point of attending Marshallese events, where he has admired their culture and ornate hand crafts of intricately woven basketry and shell jewelry. "We pay thousands of dollars to go to Cancun," says Van Hoose, "while we have the very same things going on right here in our community. It's thrilling!" Van Hoose welcomes the Marshallese to his town because they are all about family and hard work. "They see opportunities here," he says. "I love the way they take walks around town together. Plus they are law-abiding citizens. That tells me about the quality of the people. They will do well here." Islanders are doing well here. According to the Marshallese Embassy, nearly 80 percent of adults are working, primarily in the poultry processing plants. In the islands, annual incomes hover around $20,000 per household, while here, Marshallese can earn twice that. And they are very pleased with this new-found wealth, says Eola Lokebol. Twenty- six year old Lokebol is the mother of a 7-year-old daughter who lives with her husband and extended family in a sprawling house in north Springdale. Born in the capital city of Majuro, Lokebol moved here in 1997 to go to school. She is currently studying business management and works full time at Tyson Foods corporate headquarters in the ethics department. "The majority of Marshallese who arrive here go straight to Tyson Foods," Lokebol says. "They come one day, the next they are hired." Despite the physical challenges of working on the production lines of a poultry factory, most islanders are grateful for the work, Lokebol says. "The Marshallese people don't complain." Marshall Islands resident Tony de Brum has been monitoring islander immigration into the U.S., particularly in the Ozarks where he has relatives. He was instrumental in developing a Compact of Free Association between the U.S. and the Marshalls, a compact that allows Marshallese free ability to work, an advantage or immigrants from other countries. "I think the Marshallese community in the Arkansas Ozarks has felt especially welcome," de Brum says. "They are committed to overcoming educational disadvantages and becoming productive and contributing partners in Arkansas' sadvancement and prosperity. It is truly inspiring." DeBrum credits word of mouth for the Arkansas population. He says members of an Assembly of God islander congregation in California heard of work opportunities in Arkansas and made the move. Word spread quickly. Nuclear winter After declaring independence in 1989, the Republic of the Marshall Islands signed the Compact of Free Association with America to maintain military ties. Such ties have endured for over 50 years. Beginning in 1946, the U.S. --which then possessed the islands -- conducted nearly 70 atomic and thermonuclear weapons tests on varous atolls. By the end of the decade-long experiment, portions of the Marshalls where rendered into what is euphemistically known as a national sacrifice area. The mother of all bombs, the Bravo Shot was detonated on Bikini Atoll in March 1954. A thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Bravo's fireball was three miles in diameter and carved a crater one mile wide, spewing radioactive debris over 50,000 square miles. "We were shaking with fear," says Hiram John whose island was downwind. "The horizon turned bright orange." While John says he has not yet contracted cancer, he expects to. Saimen Milne was also a young boy during the testing. He says radioactive fallout covered everything. "A friend of mine said he was playing in the yellow powder -- they didn't know what it was. They lost their hair. They got leukemia. Some of the women give birth to jelly -- deformed babies." "We'll never know how many died from acute radiation poisoning," says Holly Barker, senior political advisor to the Marshallese Embassy. "Government records have been systematically destroyed or disappeared. When the embassy petitioned for access to the documents, we were told none existed." Barker says islanders were also used like guinea pigs in radioactive experiments, which the government denied for decades. The Clinton administration finally confirmed such tests were conducted. "They had Marshallese drink radioactive substances to see what would happen to them," she says, "without their permission or consent. Marshallese were injected with radioactive material and exposed to radiation so that scientists could assess the physiological impacts of nuclear war." Today, although cancer rates among islanders are extreme, no cancer registry exists on the islands, nor are there oncologists. Dr. Neil Palofox is a professor of family medicine at the University of Hawaii. He takes care of Marshallese living in the islands and United States who are victims of weapons testing, a project he inherited from the Atomic Energy Commission, now the Department of Energy. "The testing destroyed a thriving subsistence culture," he says. Dr. Mark Thomas, chairman of the Department of Medicine at Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville, was also under contract with the DOE to diagnose and treat radiation victims. "With regard to kinds of cancer to excess in the population, you will see thyroid, lung, and skin cancer," Thomas says. In 1988, the Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal was established to grant compensation for personal injury caused by nuclear testing. Only $270 million dollars has been provided by the U.S. to victims and their families, less than $12 per person per month. But all compensation -- including medical treatment -- was terminated by the Bush administration. "And negotiations for any future compensation are stalled," says Holly Barker. "The whole world needs to remember that our people experienced nuclear war,"says Northwest Arkansas Marshallese Committee President, Carmen Chong Gum. Along with activists from the Omni Center for Peace and Justice in Fayetteville, Marshallese hold annual Bravo Day protests. Islanders perform traditional music, activists write letters to Congress and everyone shares a meal. "We bombed and radiated their homeland," says Omni founder, Dick Bennett. "And now we have the second largest population of islanders in the world living here. Hell, our protest is just a peep, but we must never forget what happened to these people." Marshallese exodus With an inadequate health system, cuts in U.S. compensation to radiation victims, and growing poverty, over six percent of the Marshall's population has been dislocated. Embassy secretary, Kristina Stegee, is keenly aware of the exodus. "The impact on our islands has yet to be determined, it's so new," she warns. "People are the islands' most valuable resource, and that resource is dwindling." Lumon Benjaman's family is from Bikini Atoll. "My sister recently died from cancer, and my mom is sick," Benjamin says, "so we came to Arkansas for medical purposes." Accustomed to cheap public health services back home, island immigrants with simple complaints often end up in hospital emergency rooms here. "With the exception of those who work in the plants, most of our people do not have insurance," says Carmen Chong Gum. "They go to the ER. Then they get all these bills and calls from collection agencies. So it's a problem." A majority of islanders retain their Marshall Islands citizenship, so are not eligible for Medicare or Medicaid, unless they are American-born islanders. Many with no insurance go to the Community Clinic at St. Francis House for care. Director, Kathy Grisham, oversees a staff of 20, including nurses, social workers, a volunteer physician, several dentists, and translator. They are funded primarily through donations. "The Marshallese are a kind, gentle and loving people," Grisham says. But according to nurse practitioner, Pam Crisco, islanders are suffering. Eighty-five percent of Marshallese adults have diabetes, many undiagnosed, and many children are behind on their immunizations. "Most come in with a limited medical background," she says, "and you never know when they are going to come back -- so you get in as much teaching as you can without overwhelming them." "We came in, literally destroyed their subsistence way of life and introduced a western diet and disease," Crisco says. Because Marshallese carry both Hansen's Disease and tuberculosis, Arkansas Department of Health officials convened a special conference for health care providers last autumn called, "New Cultures, Old Diseases." Hazel Maybry is a communicable disease nurse specialist with the ADH. "Hanson's disease was something we never dealt with in Arkansas," says Mabry. "Yet, physicians here have expressed willingness to see these patients -- sometimes at no charge" One such physician is Dr. James Wharton of the Northwest Arkansas Dermatology Clinic in Springdale. He says the chance of contracting Hansen's disease is remote. "After exposure, 95 percent of people essentially are immune to it," he says. "And the disease is easily diagnosed and treated, which has greatly lessened any stigma associated with the illness." Tuberculosis, on the other hand, is highly contagious. According to the Health Department, TB in Northwest Arkansas peaked in 2000, with 59 new cases -- in part due to Marshallese immigration. Ozarks Islanders The autonomous Republic of the Marshall Islands is a relatively young nation, only 18 years old. So islanders tend to celebrate their May 1 independence day with fervor. Here Marshallese immigrants celebrate throughout Memorial Day weekend -- with exhibition ball games, a youth choir, arts and crafts sales, feasting and lots of socializing. Marshallese also maintain strong political interests in their country. Elections are held every four years, and most immigrants vote absentee ballot. Voting is a week-long event. Last November, Marshall Islands absentee voting was held at a civic center in Springdale. Election board member Wilbur Allen traveled to Arkansas to administer the polling place. "With only 60,000 residents, very single vote is important," Allen says. While elder Marshallese hope of returning one day to the islands, the younger generations will probably stay, says Eola Lokebol. "We are making good money here," she says. "We are happy here. We have a comfortable lifestyle." And unlike typical rowdy Americans, who are also chasing the American Dream, Marshall Islanders exhibit--in public anyway--a solemn and elegant stoicism. They have survived, after all, relentless invasions and nuclear devastation. With each other, however, islanders offer a different expression. Says school teacher Anita Iban, "If you take the time to know us, we Marshallese are jolly people. We laugh a lot. We think that everything is funny!" Marshallese teenager, Christian Jorkin says it well: "We are a very humorous people," she says beaming a beautiful smile. "We love to laugh, and to eat, and -- if you cry, we will make fun of you!" -- By Jacqueline Froelich Jacqueline Froelich is an investigative journalist and news producer for National Public Radio KUAF, in Fayetteville.


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