I am Marshallese and today is the Republic of the Marshall Island’s Independence Day. I am one of the ladies you see with the handmade dresses that looks like a muumuu but not quite. Mine is one of three Pacific Island countries that the United States government signed an international agreement with inviting us to live and work legally in the United States. The other countries are the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau. These are all different countries with different languages, cultures and institutions.
Many newspaper articles over the last year claim that the U.S. invited us to live and work here as a way to make up for the permanent and devastating damage that the United States did to our islands from 1946-1958 when they used my homelands for nuclear bombing tests. That is only part of the story. The United States also keeps this agreement with our countries so that our governments will continue to allow the U.S. military to build and operate massive military bases on our islands.
My family is from Bikini Atoll. This is where the United States concentrated most of its nuclear bomb testing. In fact, the largest nuclear explosions ever conducted by the U.S. military, much larger than the Hiroshima bomb, were tested in and around my family’s villages. These were mostly atmospheric tests, so the contaminated spread far and wide. Some of those nuclear tests were so powerful that entire islands were vaporized.
The U.S. military evacuated my family twice due to the nuclear bomb testing; the first evacuation came before the nuclear bomb tests started, the second evacuation came after the U.S. military realized that they had not moved our families far enough away to keep us safe. In 1968, the United States Atomic Energy Commission announced that it was safe to resettle parts of Marshall Islands, but the International Atomic Energy Commission disputed those findings in 1994 and the families that had moved back home had to be relocated once again. The IAEA provides a good account of this history on its website.
Even today, 55 years after the nuclear tests were stopped, many scientists and nuclear safety organizations report that it is unsafe to eat crops grown on the land there and fish from the local waters. More than a dozen of my aunties and sisters gave birth to deformed babies after the nuclear tests. This is heartbreaking for families. My family and I have given up our dream of ever returning to our ancestral village.
But we are working hard to make a home here in Hawaii. It is hard, because many of us, especially those who faced evacuations and the devastating effects of the nuclear tests, came here with nothing but medical conditions and the will to live. Luckily, I attended a church school when I was young, so I learned English from a young age. This has helped my family through the turmoil of moving to a new country, getting a good job and helping my kids with school work.
Like many of the immigrant groups in Hawaii, even those of us who were teachers and principals and government employees in our home country can only get the lowest, most entry level jobs when we get the United States.
Those of us from Marshall Islands, Micronesian and Palau know that we are not yet accepted in Hawaii. We know that some people don’t like our traditional dresses and skirts, call us all “Micros” and think that we don’t know how to fit in. We are trying. We are trying hard to get an education for our kids, get medical care for our elders, and jobs that will allow us to be self-sufficient.
So today I am celebrating my home country’s Independence Day, and on July 4 I will celebrate the U.S. Independence Day. Parts of the American National Anthem remind me a lot of home, “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” sound a lot like the stories my people tell of the bombings of our islands.
Many of our kids are born and raised here in Hawaii and as a mother and grandmother, I pray every day that our kids will be accepted here and be able to live healthy, productive lives. We are working hard to learn the language and cultures here, please also learn a little about us so that we can all understand and accept each other.
I hear people say sometimes, “why are there so many of them here? Why do they dress like that? Why don’t they just go home?” Many of us have no home left, so we are doing the best we can.
Litha Joel Jorju is a founding member of the Maui Marshallese Women's Club, part of Faith Action for Community Equity Maui.