Editor’s Note: This is the first of two stories on new publications about Micronesians, both authored by Father Francis X. Hezel, a Catholic priest who has lived and worked in Micronesia for more than four decades. Today’s story focuses on the publications, which shed light on Micronesian history, culture and society, and the fast-growing number of Micronesians that are emigrating from the region to Hawaii and the mainland.

Hezel visited Hawaii this week to meet with government officials and others to discuss what the state and federal governments can do to help Micronesians. (Civil Beat reporter Chad Blair lived on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands from 1966-1969 and 1977-1981.)

Civil Beat has reported extensively on the struggles of Micronesians in Hawaii.

Most recently, a Community Voices column by Litha Joel Jorju, For Marshallese, Hawaii Is The Only Home We Have Left, went viral. A founding member of the Maui Marshallese Women’s Club, Jorju wrote, “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.”

The reasons that Micronesians have little choice about where to live is complicated. It is also serious, as marked by growing reports of tensions with other groups in the islands and the burden placed on the state’s health services.

UH Press

On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa hosted a congressional briefing in Washington on the health care challenges facing Compact of Free Association (COFA) migrants and how the costs affect states like Hawaii. Hanabusa has a bill that calls for restoring Medicaid coverage for COFA migrants.

Fortunately for Hawaii — and anyone who cares to learn more about this important, overlooked and deeply misunderstood immigrant group — a book by the University of Hawaii Press and a study by the East-West Center represent a major advance in our understanding of Micronesians: where they live, who they are, what has shaped them, how the United States is intimately connected with the region and where Micronesians are going.

On that last point, where Micronesians “are going” is Hawaii. The number of immigrants from the Federated States of Micronesia (Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae) locally has increased from about 3,800 in the late 1990s to almost 8,000 today. Hezel told Civil Beat that immigrants from Palau total at least several hundred, while those from the Republic of the Marshall Islands number between 3,000 and 4,000.

That totals 12,000, and the populations are likely undercounted.

Though the book and study were published by academic institutions, both are written for general audiences. That is largely to the credit of author Fran Hezel, 74, a Buffalo native who first traveled to the region to live and work in 1963, first at Chuuk’s Xavier High School and then as founder and director of the church–sponsored research institution called the Micronesian Seminar in Pohnpei.

Hezel writes not as a scholar but as a storyteller and an explainer, making it easy for his audiences to follow him. He also obviously loves and cares for Micronesia.

Hezel continues to serve the Catholic Church in Guam and regularly publishes about regional issues on a regular basis, including on his blog, Where’s Fran? (One great example: Don’t Believe Everything You Read About Jesuits.)

Together, both publications can help Hawaii as it works to assimilate its newest immigrant group.

Micronesians on the Move

First, let’s look at the latest data.

Micronesians on the Move: Eastward and Upward Bound comes from the East-West Center’s Pacific Islands Policy series, through the center’s Pacific Islands Development Program.

UH Manoa Center for Pacific Islands Studies

The paper on Micronesian emigration will be published shortly, but the Pacific Islands program gave us an advance draft. Specifically, it looks at migrants from the Federated States of Micronesia, commonly called FSM.

The migration from the FSM to the United States began in 1980 but “increased sharply,” Hezel explains, with the implementation of the Compact of Free Association in 1986. Widely known as COFA, the compact allows the U.S. strategic access (it includes missile defense tracking and testing) to the COFA nations, in return granting Micronesians entry into the U.S. and its territories.

Shockingly, “fully one-third of all FSM-born people live outside their island nation,” Hezel writes. About 50,000 FSM people and their children live in either the United States or one of its jurisdictions, Guam or the Northern Mariana Islands; the 2010 Census figure for the FSM was 102,000.

Why Hawaii? Geographical proximity and the fact that Hawaii has been a “college town” for Micronesians since the 1960s because of the University of Hawaii’s Manoa and Hilo campuses, Hawaii Pacific University and Chaminade College. Many stayed after college and started families, spurring more migrants to join them.

“It was inevitable, then, that Hawaii would sooner or later become a destination for FSM migrants,” said Hezel.

Another reason for the Hawaii draw: the quality of health services.

“Micronesians who required dialysis for kidney problems brought on by diabetes or chemotherapy for cancer could find treatment that was unavailable to them back home,” said Hezel — hence the burden the state faces today. As Hanabusa said Thursday at the COFA hearing, Hawaii alone pays $42 million a year in unreimbursed health care costs to support COFA migrants.

The FSM migrants to Hawaii followed a path well-trod by other groups before them: taking low-paying jobs in fast-food outlets and gas stations, gradually moving to managerial positions and some even becoming doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs.

Making Sense of Micronesia

But others struggle to make ends meet, become burdens to family members, go on welfare and move into homeless shelters. And so, though the FSM population is less than one percent of the state population, it is mired at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder along with many Marshallese.

Giff Johnson

Marshallese at a roadside store, circa 1980.

Living in Hawaii, “the food, the weather, the feel of the place, the culture” are similar for Micronesians. Because of this, Hezel concludes that a “sizable group of migrants” will always live here rather than go back home or move on to the mainland.

The biggest burden, however, will be the high cost of living. No wonder, then, that many more FSM migrants are continuing eastward. Two popular areas are Kansas City and Portland, Ore., in part because there are factory jobs available with higher wages than can be found here.

One other draw: escape from negative stereotypes found on Guam and in Hawaii. Which brings us to Hezel’s book, Making Sense of Micronesia: The Logic of Pacific Island Culture.

The cover jacket includes a nice encapsulation and an indication of the book’s appeal, especially to Hawaii:

Why are islanders so lavishly generous with food and material possessions but so guarded with information? Why do these people, unfailingly polite for the most part, laugh openly when others embarrass themselves? What does a smile mean to an islander? What might a sudden lapse into silence signify?

In less than 200 pages, Hezel covers a broad range of issues, including colonization by the Spanish, Germans, Japanese and — yes — Americans. The name Micronesia — “the tiny islands” — came from a 19th-century French naval captain.

It is also very much a personal history that offers real insight into Micronesians. Frequently, Hezel presents little vignettes of real people and situations to give life to the page.

One example: The story of 19-year-old Tomaso, who took his own life after a family argument. His father had refused a request for money Tomaso needed to attend a church-sponsored youth picnic.

“They found his body early the next morning hanging from one of the lower branches of a breadfruit tree three-hundred yards from the house,” Hezel writes.

Then comes Hezel’s point:

Tomaso’s tragedy is a story that has been repeated hundreds of times over, throughout the past four decades. Since 1970 there have been more than 1,500 recorded suicides in Micronesia, most of them similar in many respects to that of Tomaso. … Nowhere is the importance of the family so strongly underscored as in the phenomenon of suicide.

That’s just one example of information about Micronesian society that simply can’t be gleaned by limited interaction with them, and it illustrates the value of Making Sense of Micronesia.

Courtesy of Micronesian Seminar

Mortlock Islanders (modern-day Chuuk) prepare for a traditional dance, 1907.

Some of what Hezel has to say can be difficult for modern-day Westerners to accept. A chapter on the treatment of women by Micronesian men is particularly upsetting. (“A young woman tries to intervene to help her drunken brother, who repays her with blows to the face,” Hezel writes. “Men enjoy themselves while women struggle with their heavy work burdens.”)

And yet, Hezel explains, appearances can be deceiving; behind the scenes, Micronesian women actually wield real power.

Making Sense of Micronesia. is an important book that deserves a wide audience. It’s also full of great photos and maps, including those reproduced here.

Micronesians are here to stay in the United States, and they should be welcomed as part of Hawaii’s rainbow ohana, Hezel told Civil Beat. At minimum, they should not be disparaged with “Micro” jokes and racial discrimination, as is sadly often the case.

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