Marshallese community values helping each other
By Marijke Fakasiieiki
Doresty Daniel, a language specialist for Marshallese students with Spokane Public Schools, draws on the heritage of the Marshall Islanders as she helps them navigate community resources.
With about 5,000 Marshallese living and working in the Spokane area, there are 12 Marshallese churches—Catholic, Pentecostal and Protestant, plus house churches.
After Arkansas, Washington has the second largest population of Marshallese in the mainland U.S.
Doresty believes the U.S. government has a responsibility to address needs related to ongoing displacement because of U.S. activities—both nuclear weapons testing from 1946 to 1958 in the Marshall Islands and the ongoing ballistic missiles testing on Kwajalein Atoll.
Many families in Spokane are part of communities displaced by U.S. activities on their home islands. In exchange for U.S. military rights in the Marshall Islands, Marshallese are able to enter, work and live in the U.S. without passports or visas, under the Compact of Free Association (COFA), the treaty for government relations between the U.S. and the three former territories of the Freely Associated States (COFA): the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI).
COFA places on the U.S. responsibility for damages and injuries that persist in the islands from tests and studying effects of radiation on human beings. They buried radioactive soil, debris and plutonium in the Runit Dome, which is now leaking.
At Hanford, the U.S. govenrment processed plutonium that fueled dozens of weapons detonated in the Marshall Islands. Now people with cancer and other radiation illnesses come to Washington state for health care connected to the nuclear industry that joins Washington State and the RMI. There is no cancer care facility or treatment available in the Marshall Islands so people must leave for care.
"They bring us from our islands and give us a place to live because many of our islands were vaporized and contaminated," said Doresty, who hopes for the history to be widely known and for a clear restitution process.
While each Marshallese person has a story about why they moved to this area, most seek good jobs, schools and health care. Many have also left the islands because of the rising sea level.
Coming in large numbers, they continue to rely on their close-knit community and their families in difficult times as they overcome language, cultural, economic and other barriers.
Doresty moved from the Marshall Islands to Kauai, where she ran a cleaning company. In 2014, she came to Spokane for a cousin's wedding. She didn't plan to stay, but she liked it here and found the cost of living less than in Kauai. She thought it would be a good place to raise her children, because it has good schools.
"I didn't have background in education, but because education is important for us, I looked for work in education," she said.
Many have family here, and Spokane is relatively small, so it's easy to navigate to social services, doctors' appointments and schools. It's easy for Marshallese to qualify for Medicaid.
"Every day at the school district, new Marshallese families register their children. Airway Heights and Cheney schools are growing faster because they have more low-income apartments, and casinos and Amazon readily hire Marshallese," Doresty said.
Language makes it hard for many to access resources, because few Marshallese speakers understand social services, and little information on resources is translated into Marshallese.
In the Marshall Islands, those with health issues like diabetes, cancer, hepatitis, TB and other chronic diseases have difficulty finding treatment because of a lack of doctors. There is an uptick in cancers from nuclear tests.
People realize the contaminated environment and food cause cancers and diseases they never had before, said Doresty, who was born after nuclear testing.
Her parents said coconut trees were full of big coconuts before the testing. Now coconuts have little or no meat or water inside.
"When my parents grew up, the soil was healthy. Now it's not, likely because of both climate change and nuclear testing. We don't know how to test for radiation or toxins," she said, "but we know death rates have risen. Almost every day, we have a funeral. Here and in the Marshall Islands people are dying because of diabetes and other illnesses."
Since the nuclear tests, their food culture has changed.
"We no longer eat fresh vegetables because the soil is contaminated. We don't grow vegetables. Why grow tomatoes if we may die from eating them? We don't know if it is safe to eat coconuts or breadfruit. We take risks every day," she said. "Our previous way of life no longer exists.
"We used to grab fruit from a papaya tree and eat it, but now we have to be careful what we eat. We used to eat all kinds of fish, but we know that people who eat fish are dying," said Doresty.
Without fruits and fish, the people turned to manufactured food, like canned meat.
"We have to work to earn money to buy it. When we move to the U.S., we know there are fresh vegetables that are safe, but many still buy canned SPAM or corned beef because that's what we grew up eating," she said. "We are changing our diet, but it will take time."
With 12 congregations in Spokane, Airway Heights, Mead and Spokane Valley, families have many opportunities to connect with the larger Marshallese community. When they go to church, they bring their food to eat and have fellowship after the services.
Doresty grew up Protestant and goes to church, but she's not a member of any congregation, because she visits the wider Marshallese community.
"I visit different churches to learn their needs, connect people to resources and share tools for self-reliance," she said. "If they need clothing, I tell them about thrift stores where they can buy clothes for 25 cents."
Even though she also struggles, she helps others find ways to improve their lives and live more comfortably.
"In Marshallese culture, we help each other and share information," Doresty said. "In Spokane, Marshallese are not living on the street or homeless.
"If we learn someone is running out of gas or needs a bag of rice, even if we have little money, we provide for their needs and connect them with food banks or other resources," she said.
People call each other or visit if they need something. If the person they ask doesn't have it, that person calls a sister or brother.
"Regardless of time, we stop by each other's house to share things or borrow clothes," she said.
Doresty said that parents' health, work and transportation issues affect their children, who need to be registered for school and arrive each day on time. If a mother is sick and the father is working, he has to earn enough to support the family—usually with three or four children. Many rely on donations for clothing and school supplies.
Spokane Public School students receive help with learning English through programs in high schools, middle schools and now elementary schools for newcomers from the Marshall Islands.
The Newcomer Program tests students to determine their English level and need for services.
Many Marshallese know how to drive but don't have driver's licenses because the drivers manual is not translated in Marshallese, and they can't read English.
"We are considered too small a community to receive language access services, but we are big. Come to our churches and events and see how many people are there," she said. "We need to be able to drive."
Depending on someone to drive if there's no bus to the workplace makes it hard to work.
Doresty said Marshallese need to learn many tips for living here. So she seeks to work with organizations like SNAP and Northwest Fair Housing to educate people on housing, tenant issues, home ownership, credit and budgeting to assure housing stability.
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