17 August 2007

Some Micronesian Immigrant Success Stories

The article on Micronesians Abroad by Francis X. Hezel, S.J., and Eugenia Samuel, published in December 2006 on the Micronesian Seminar's very informative website, profiles several successful Micronesian immigrants in the various enclaves of such immigrants that the authors visited. Among those profiled was the most prominent of the recent church shooting victims in Neosho, Missouri: Kernel Rehobson. Here are some excerpts from each of the communities visited.


The Honolulu press has given considerable attention to the problem of homeless Micronesians. We found that a good many Micronesians are on welfare and quite a few have declared themselves homeless, partly because being listed as homeless gives people a leg up on finding affordable housing in a state where even the smallest unit is prohibitively expensive at market prices.... But that's far less than half the story. Many Micronesians we talked to were angry at the "newcomers" for abusing the system and destroying the good reputation they had worked so hard to build up....

To their credit, many of the Micronesians we met were doing far better than just getting by. Serlino Harper, a young Chuukese, came to Hawaii more than ten years ago and lived with his older brother for a while before striking out on his own. His first job was as an employee at McKinley's Car Wash. Today he is the supervisor of the car wash, which employs more than a dozen other Chuukese, and he lives in a small studio apartment with his pet cat. Xavier Fethal from Ulithi, married and with a family of six, has a good job selling medical supplies to hotels and still finds the time to play guitar in a local band and maintain a steady involvement in community activities. Bruce Musrasrik, born in Pohnpei but a resident of Honolulu for several years, manages one of the hotels in Waikiki. Then, too, there is Lubuw Falenruw, a Yapese, one of the most publicized success stories of Micronesians in Hawaii. He is owner of a computer graphics company that employs some 20 people, nets millions each year, and is famous throughout the state for its innovative displays.

Southern California

Our next stop was San Diego, where we spent more time with many of those we had met at the gathering in Pasadena. John Akapito, a Chuukese who has his master's degree and teaches English to foreign students at National University, cut a fine figure in his suit and tie as we interviewed him in his private office on the campus. Like most other Micronesians in the San Diego area, John has close ties with the Micronesian Outreach Ministry based in Pasadena. Sabino Asor, former FSM congressman from Chuuk, is also in San Diego; he currently works in the service department of a car dealership, but aspires to getting into the real estate business before long. His spacious four-bedroom house with garage was rather typical of the homes occupied by Micronesians with large families. At the farewell party they threw for us the evening we left, we met dozens of other islanders, including the offspring of half a dozen well known Chuukese families: Masataka Mori's daughter, Susumu Aizawa's niece, Mitaro Dannis' nephew, Tosiwo Nakayama's granddaughter, and three Narruhn women, among others.

As we chatted, it became clear that the children were much more fluent in English than in their local language, even if both parents were from the same island. At nearly all the social events we attended, the parents used their own language whenever they could, while the young generation spoke English. Young people seemed to have understood the local language when they were spoken to, and they have all learned songs and hymns in an island language, but they did not feel comfortable speaking it. Acculturation happens quickly in the US mainland, much more rapidly, I suspect, than in Hawaii or Guam.

Corsicana, Texas

Corsicana, an hour's drive from Dallas, might seem an unlikely spot for a Micronesian community, but there are about 300 islanders living there. The origins of this community date back to the late 1970s when dozens of young Micronesians were attending Navarro Community College....

One of the icons of the Corsicana community, by all accounts, is a Palauan woman by the name of Grace. Like so many others, she attended Navarro Community College and after graduation decided to stay. She is the manager of a Pizza Hut in the middle of town where she has worked for eighteen years. As part of her work, she supervises eight employees, half of whom are also Palauan. Her life has been a model of persistence in carrying out her responsibilities for her work and family. Others like her have worked their way up to the managerial level. She told us that she would hope to return home one day after her retirement, but for the present she has a good salary and a generous pension for her retirement. As much as she misses the laid-back pace of life at home, Grace plans to continue working in Corsicana as long as she can. After all, she reflects, there will always be time to enjoy the slow life in the islands after retirement.

Central Florida

This community—if it can be called that—is spread throughout an area that extends from Orlando to Tampa and Clearwater. This place differs from the other destinations we visited in that there are no senior founders of this community, "elders" who pull people together for gatherings and resolve community problems. Nearly all the Micronesians who settled in central Florida were brought out by recruiters to work at SeaWorld, Disney World, Busch Gardens, or one of the several nursing homes in the area. The community here, which is heavily Pohnpeian but with a few Mortlockese thrown into the mix, is composed mainly of young men and their starter families. We met no one who was there longer than ten years, and most have lived in central Florida for just five or six years. This group lacks the experienced leadership that has proven vital for binding together individuals in other migrant communities....

Some of the migrants have continued working in the theme parks. One young man operates the kiddie rollercoaster at SeaWorld while a Pohnpeian woman works the sky lift at Busch Gardens. Most, however, seem to hold jobs in food services, like the young lady from Pohnpei we found rolling cinnamon sticks in another part of the park. All seem to get along very well with their coworkers and enjoy the respect of their bosses.

A small Japanese restaurant called Kanpai employs seven Micronesians, one as hostess and six as chefs. When we went there for dinner one evening, we were treated to a virtuoso performance demonstrating what the Pohnpeian chefs could do with a knife, a hot grill, and bowls of vegetables and meat. The chefs came out, each in front of a grill surrounded by patrons, and did a juggling act with knives and food, as they chopped at lightning speed, swirled and twirled food on the grill faster than we could follow, and doffed their chef hats for the applause that followed their act.

Corner of Arkansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma

Neosho lies just a bit north of the Missouri-Arkansas border, no more than eighty miles from Springdale, Arkansas, the site of the large Tyson Chicken Factory and home to thousands of Marshallese immigrants. Another fifty miles west of Neosho, just across the state border, is Miami, Oklahoma, a town slightly larger than Neosho that has an island community of its own. We joined the 300 or so Micronesians to watch the baseball games and enjoy the mixed buffet, featuring island delicacies like banana pihlohlo along with such American standards as spareribs and chicken. Micronesians came from all over Missouri, some from northern Arkansas and Wichita, and even from as far away as Cincinnati and Corsicana, to attend. Most were Pohnpeians, but there were also a few Chuukese and Marshallese on hand. We were told that Cincinnati would, in turn, host the next Pohnpeian games, scheduled for September 11—a day celebrated on their home island as Liberation Day.

The person who organized the games—and who oversees most other activities that take place in Neosho—is a Pingelapese businessman by the name of Kernel Rehobson. Kernel owns a retail store that is a gathering place for Micronesians from dozens of miles around since he stocks his store with the type of down-home items that are so difficult to find in the US: the large plastic combs that women wear in their hair, zoris, dawasi and brushes for showers, and island-style skirts with embroidered hems. Kernel says that he had his troubles when he first settled in Neosho; people mistook him for a Mexican and kept asking for his papers when he tried to enroll his kids in school or gain access to any social services. He started out working for K-Mart as a warehouseman, worked his way up to manager, and later quit to begin his own business. Kernel also serves as pastor to the Pingelapese community in the church that they share with the Neosho Protestant congregation. Anyone from the islands who needs help of any sort-a social security number, a driver's license, a job-always comes to Kernel first.

Portland, Oregon

The Willamette Valley between Portland and Salem has for at least twenty years been one of the favorite destinations of Micronesian migrants. The area represents one of the greatest concentrations of islanders anywhere in the continental US; and if the area is expanded to include the southern part of Washington and eastern Oregon, the Micronesian population probably numbers a few thousand....

In Oregon, as in other places, Protestants are able to attend Sunday services in their own language, while Catholics must assimilate into local parishes as best they can. Thus, Dio and his family attend mass at St. Lourdes with its international community, afterwards meeting Hispanics, Samoans, Asians and others over coffee and pastries. Chuukese Protestants generally meet on Sunday mornings at a large church in Aurora, an hour's drive from Portland, where Mitaro Dannis and a few other ministers preach in Chuukese and discuss with their congregation the importance of raising funds so that they can build a church of their own.

Elsewhere in Portland Ken Henry in his late forties and Lisa Uehara in her late twenties, work for William C. Earhart Company, a business that helps administer employee benefit plans. Ken, a Pohnpeian married to an American woman, is an accountant, while Lisa, a Chuukese from Weno, is a receptionist. Lisa, her Chuukese husband and their nine children live in a very nice three-bedroom house that they own. Lisa's sister and her family are conveniently settled right next door in a similar house of their own. Next to the children's swings and slides in the back yard there is an earth oven that the two families use to bake pork and breadfruit on special occasions.

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