Dozens of Marshall Islanders are quarantining in Waikiki this week on their way home after months of being stranded abroad because of the pandemic, while hundreds of Micronesians remain stranded in the United States with no return flight in sight.
The Marshallese are part of a wave of Pacific Islanders making their way back to island nations and territories that had quickly closed their borders in March to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.
Some countries, like Palau and Tonga, have been accepting citizens back home for months. The first flight of repatriated American Samoans landed in Pago Pago from Honolulu this week.
The Marshall Islands accepted its first repatriation flight in late October and had another in mid-January. But an estimated 900 citizens of the Federated States of Micronesia are still stuck outside their country after a planned December flight was canceled.
Honolulu is a hub for travel to and from other Pacific archipelagos, and the American Samoan and Marshall Islands governments are paying for their residents to be quarantined and tested in Hawaii before returning home.
Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green said he has been assisting both American Samoa and the Marshall Islands with their repatriation efforts. His office is providing face masks and expediting coronavirus tests.
Green said his office is also helping three Marshallese citizens who had flown to Honolulu for emergency medical care and were due for their second dose of COVID-19 vaccines to finish their vaccination courses prior to returning home.
Helping stranded Pacific Islanders return home helps prevent overcrowding in Hawaii among a community that’s experiencing disproportionately high rates of COVID-19, Green said.
“Those two or three individuals otherwise might be staying with large numbers of people,” he said.
Jean Phillip flew to Hawaii from Taiwan when she heard she and her family got a spot on the third repatriation flight to the Marshall Islands, a nation of about 60,000 people south of Hawaii that maintains close military and civilian ties with the U.S. under a treaty known as the Compact of Free Association.
Phillip tested negative for the coronavirus before she left Taiwan; after she landed in San Francisco; and upon entering quarantine in Honolulu.
She will get tested again at the end of her two-week quarantine in Waikiki, and will need to endure an additional three-week quarantine upon arriving in Kwajelein in the Marshall Islands on her way to her hometown of Majuro.
The process is challenging but worth it, Phillip said. She was attending medical school in Taiwan when the borders closed and originally planned to return home after graduating. She hasn’t been back for four years.
“We are very fortunate and blessed,” she said. “Just thankful every day that we’re here and we’re finally going to get to go home.”
Philmar Mendoza Kabua, a nurse who is helping to coordinate the repatriation effort, says there are 43 Marshallese plus five diplomats on the third planned flight on Friday.
So far, 68 were repatriated on the first two flights after quarantining in Waikiki. Kabua and her family also were among the stranded after flying to Chicago so she could give birth last March.
They moved in with family in Hawaii to wait for the flight home but didn’t expect to be stuck for so long. Kabua tried to get a job as a nurse in Honolulu but said it was challenging coming from the Marshall Islands. It was only with financial assistance from the Marshallese government that they were able to make ends meet.
Ronnie Lakabung, a Marshall Islands council member from the town of Rita, had a similar experience after getting stranded on Maui while visiting one of his daughters in March.
His daughter, who worked for Hawaiian Airlines, was laid off as the pandemic halted travel. His wife, who was working for a Marshallese company, had her work hours cut. Lakabung got a part-time job in cargo to help make ends meet but was soon laid off himself.
“It was very, very difficult,” Lakabung said through an interpreter. “Everyone in the household was laid off.”
Their 13-person household was able to scrounge up enough money with their daughter’s unemployment assistance and stimulus checks to cover rent. But Lakabung felt overwhelmed with anxiety, saying they relied on only rice, ramen and chicken for food.
Lakabung lobbied political leaders to repatriate citizens and prayed constantly. When he got the call in mid-January that they’d be on the third flight home, he cried with joy.
Lakabung said he wants to tell his story because he wants other stranded citizens to remain hopeful. But hundreds of other Pacific Islanders from the Federated States of Micronesia face a lot more uncertainty regarding when they’ll be able to go home.
It’s unclear how many of the estimated 900 FSM citizens trapped outside of the country are in Hawaii, but about a third are on Guam according to Richard Clark, a spokesman for president David Panuelo. Panuelo announced on Jan. 27 that no citizens will be repatriated until 70% of the population is vaccinated.
Clark told Civil Beat that threshold is estimated to be about 45,000 people. Currently, after a monthlong vaccination effort, the country has administered 6,652 vaccine doses.
The government has issued two separate stimulus checks to its citizens at $1,000 per person or $1,500 per family. Medical referral patients also receive a per diem.
Clark said the FSM government hasn’t forgotten its stranded citizens.
“We think about them every day,” Clark said. “I knew somebody who was stranded abroad (in Oregon) until he got coronavirus and died from it.”
He said fear about the virus is widespread given the community’s relative lack of health care infrastructure and staff. In Hawaii, non-Hawaiian Pacific Islanders have by far the highest rate of COVID-19, a disparity that’s been consistent throughout the pandemic.
The president previously announced a repatriation flight in December, but it was canceled after FSM legislators raised concerns.
Paulina Perman, who leads a Facebook group for stranded citizens in Hawaii, said it’s frustrating how the repatriations have become a political issue.
“If Palau and RMI can do it, why is FSM not able to do the same for their people?” she said. “The stranded have been waiting for so long. They’re willing to do anything.”
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