We Are Oceania is a collaborative, Micronesian-run nonprofit organization based in Honolulu whose mission is to “empower our Micronesian community to navigate success while honoring the integrity of our diverse heritage.”

WAO aims to centralize the support system for all Micronesian communities, families, and individuals living in Hawaii, serving as a one stop center dedicated to addressing Micronesian community needs.

Those needs may be as diverse as basic translation services, guidance in locating legal assistance, help dealing with employers or landlords or assistance enrolling in health insurance. WAO helps Micronesians adjust to their new homes by providing the skills they need to navigate American society: acculturation training, pre-employment training, census enumeration and service referrals.

Micronesians, like these enrolling last year year in Hawaii health insurance system, sometimes need help accessing services and benefits in Hawaii. We Are Oceania serves as a one-stop center providing assistance for Micronesians living in Hawaii.

Micronesians, like these enrolling last year year in Hawaii health insurance system, sometimes need help accessing services and benefits in Hawaii. We Are Oceania serves as a one-stop center providing assistance for Micronesians living in Hawaii.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

It also helps COFA residents access U.S. government programs to which they are legally entitled. Because of the prejudice many Micronesians in Hawaii face on a daily basis, an organization that is able to demonstrate the understanding, humility and respect for Micronesians in the way WAO has is vitally needed.

This respect is epitomized by the words of WAO’s director, Jocelyn Howard, originally from the Federated States of Micronesia: “[I give] my humble admiration for the people of Oceania for our usual courage in navigating unfamiliar waters and having the perseverance to sail through rough waters, strong currents, and powerful winds while staying loyal to maintaining, repairing, and rebuilding ‘our canoe’ for our generation and for the next generations to carry on our voyage to our ‘destination.’’’

It is with this tiirow fairo (respect) that she and her colleagues formed this organization. WAO is the culmination of a long journey of Micronesians empowering other Micronesians to become integrated members of American society.

On May 31, 2016, Neil Mellen published an op-ed in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser entitled “Interior Department bungling making COFA mess worse.” Mellen is the founder and director of the Habele Outer Island Education Fund. His piece criticized the U.S. Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs for building “stagnant, semi-cash, local economies” in the Freely Associated States and in particular for its “disastrous” support of one-stop centers in Hawaii.

Though we respect the important work Habele does in supporting education initiatives in Micronesia, Mellen missed the point. While U.S. government agencies, including the Interior Department, are by no means above reproach, Micronesians have been navigating a wider world for centuries.

As the Tongan scholar Epeli Hauofa has observed, thousands of Pacific Islanders crisscross the ocean every day, enlarging their worlds as their ancestors did before them. “Everywhere they go,” he writes, “they strike roots in new resource areas, securing employment and overseas family property, expanding kinship networks through which they circulate themselves, their relatives, their material goods, and their stories all across their ocean.” And, he continues, “the ocean is theirs because it has always been their home.”

The migrants who arrive on the shores of Hawaii, Guam, the U.S. mainland and beyond are not merely impoverished victims of U.S. government mismanagement. They are navigators who help enrich their home islands even as they contribute to their adopted homes through their work in healthcare and manufacturing, tourism and education, agriculture and the service industry and service in the U.S. military far out of proportion to their numbers.

The Compact of Free Association are treaties negotiated between independent nations that offer Micronesia’s strategic position to the U.S. government in exchange for certain provisions intended to benefit Micronesians.

Nor are the provisions of the Compact of Free Association, such as the right to travel freely and to access certain U.S. government programs, gifts freely given. As Mellen rightly points out, the U.S. military has determined that it has a strategic interest in maintaining a post-independence relationship with the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau. The Compact of Free Association are treaties negotiated between independent nations that offer Micronesia’s strategic position to the U.S. government in exchange for certain provisions intended to benefit Micronesians.

These provisions are the hard-won result of decades-long negotiations meant to produce a mutually beneficial relationship. Discrepancies over funding sources are best left to the Congress and the State of Hawaii to resolve, and are not the responsibility of Hawaii’s Micronesian ohana.

This is not to say that Micronesian communities living in Hawaii do not face real struggles with some of the issues Mellen mentions: elevated rates of homelessness, low rates of health insurance and difficulty managing Hawaii’s sometimes confusing healthcare and education systems. But this only underlines the need for an organization like WAO, which has the expertise and the commitment needed to position migrants for success.

Mellen offers a substitution of State Department diplomats for Interior Department bureaucrats as a “smart first step” to more effectively implementing economic development funding and thus, he believes, to reducing migration. Yet the State Department became intimately involved in the affairs of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands as early as the 1940s and maintains a presence in Micronesia today.

Trust Territory office shelves were once littered with economic development reports prepared by government experts and independent firms, from the monumental 1946 U.S. Commercial Company survey to the infamous 1963 Solomon Report, to the 1966 Nathan Report. A series of state and national development plans have also been prepared since independence.

Foreign embassies regularly attempt to make their mark on the islands through generous offers of technical assistance for economic development projects. Micronesia’s economies may lack in some respects, but they have rarely lacked for outside economic development advice. The ultimate responsibility for managing the economic affairs of the COFA states lies, as it has since independence, with the leaders of those nations.

WAO works because it centers Micronesian talent, builds community relationships and is grounded in the reality that Micronesians are navigators seeking to enlarge their worlds, not refugees enriching themselves at the expense of U.S. taxpayers. For WAO, Micronesians working together to receive access to health care, public housing and education so that they may better their families and their communities is not “big government.” It is aloha.

For more information, visit the website of We Are Oceania.

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