Susette Lewis didn’t have a lot of time to ask questions.
The Florida woman had only been in Hawaii a few hours when she parked her rental car near baggage claim at Honolulu International Airport, and walked over to meet several adoption agents standing near the curb with a young Marshallese woman and her child.
Lewis had pictured an adoption hand-off taking place in a quiet hospital room or a well-lit office. A place where she could hold her new child and make him feel comfortable, spend a few private moments with his birth mother.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a nation of low-lying coral atolls in the western Pacific Ocean.
Instead, she had just a few minutes surrounded by the noise and chaos of an airport to try and ask questions through an interpreter.
“I remember embracing her and just telling her, ‘Thank you,’” Lewis says. “And that I would love and take care him. But how do you even say that to someone?”
It was 1992, and Lewis was one of the first Americans to adopt a child through a Hawaii-based adoption agency that had just started operating in the Marshall Islands. By 1999, more than a dozen American adoption agencies were working in the Marshall Islands, and the remote island nation had one of the highest per-capita adoption rates in the world.
In just a few years, more than 500 children were adopted from the far-flung atolls — a staggering number in a country of roughly 68,000.
London Lewis, 25, is on a mission to find his birth parents and explore his Marshallese culture. He grew up in Florida with adoptive mom Susette Lewis, right.
Jessica Terrell/Civil Beat
Two decades later, some of those children are beginning to search for answers about who they are and where they come from. Some, like 25-year-old London Lewis, grew up without knowing a single person from their native country.
Civil Beat reporters connected with London Lewis last spring, after he posted in a Facebook group asking for help finding his birth family. Around the same time, doctors in Hawaii began voicing concerns about a resurgence of Marshallese adoptions taking place under suspicious circumstances in Hawaii.
Season 3 of Civil Beat’s “Offshore” podcast delves into concerns surrounding Marshallese adoptions in Hawaii and Arkansas today, and follows Lewis as he searches for his birth family, his history, and his culture.
A child plays near an under-construction seawall in Majuro.
Jessica Terrell / Civil Beat
Lewis may not have a lot of time to find answers. The Marshall Islands have been transformed in recent decades by a massive wave of out-migration, and rising sea levels are already impacting life on the low-lying atolls.
The tenuous future of the Marshall Islands has made connecting with Marshallese culture an urgent mission — not only for adoptees like Lewis, but for an entire generation of young Marshallese-Americans. And it’s raised the stakes for regulating an adoption market that has followed the Marshallese on their journey across the United States.
How do you find your identity, how do you hold onto your culture, when your homeland is in danger of disappearing?
Offshore’s first season, “A Killing In Waikiki,” explored issues of race and power through two of Hawaii’s most infamous court cases — the Massie case in 1931 and the Deedy case in 2011. In both instances, a Native Hawaiian was killed by a white person in a position of power.
Season 2 of Offshore, “The Sacred Mountain,” took listeners to the summit of Mauna Kea and delved into the ongoing conflict over constructing the world’s largest telescope atop Hawaii’s tallest mountain.
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