Next Generation of Micronesians in Hawaiʻi Reclaim The Narrative

Mar 19, 2018

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Micronesians are Hawaiʻi’s newest and fastest growing immigrant population. For more than 30 years, citizens of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau, moved to Hawaiʻi to seek greater opportunities for employment and education. And now, the voice of the next generation of this immigrant population is emerging. HPR’s Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi reports.

The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) share a unique and often complicated relationship with the United States. 

Josie Howard, left, is one of the first Micronesians to take advantage of migration privileges afforded under the 1986 Compact of Free Association (COFA). Since then, Howard has worked with a number of state agencies and community organizations to help them understand Micronesian culture. Here, she looks over a government document translated into several Micronesian languages.
Credit UH Manoa Library

In the late 1980s, a young and ambitious Josie Howard left her home on the island of Onoun, Chuuk to pursue higher education in Hawaiʻi.

“When I first came out, a lot of people mistaken me as Hawaiian, Samoan,” says Howard, “They're like, ʻWhere are you from?’ And I said, ʻOh, I am from Micronesia.’  ʻWhere is that?’ You know, people didn't know.”

Howard was one of the first to take advantage of migration privileges under a 1986 agreement between the U.S. and FSM. For more than 30 years, Micronesian citizens were able to freely migrate to the U.S. to work, study, and live, under the Compact of Free Association or COFA.

U.S. Military in Micronesia. An aviation warfare systems operator from Atlanta, rappels from an MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter while flying over the waters of Micronesia during Pacific Partnership. The 1986 agreement allowed the U.S. to secure strategic military control over the North Pacific region. In return, citizens of the COFA nations are allowed to migrate to the U.S. without a visa or time limits.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Youth sing a song called "We Are Oceania" to open up the Second Annual Micronesian Youth Summit.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“And then over the years, it changed from not knowing to all of a sudden, whoa,” says Howard.

COFA migrants are the state’s fastest growing immigrant population with an estimated 18,000 living in Hawaiʻi. This includes migrants from FSM, as well as the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Palau. Despite a growing presence, public awareness of the Micronesian population has not kept pace.

Credit Wikimedia Commons

“When we hear someone call us a ʻMicronesian’ - especially in the context of Hawaiʻi - it makes us feel like a stereotype,” says Carol Carl, a college students who moved here from Pohnpei as a child.

Carl is a biochemistry student at UH Mānoa and president of the university's Micronesian student club.

“It makes us feel like we’re dirty, like we’re poor,” says Carl, “Like we’re, we’re almost not even human in the eyes of the society here.”

Carol Carl (middle) joins other young Micronesian professionals to share their experiences on career readiness at the Micronesian Youth Summit.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Carl teamed up with Howard, who heads the non-profit We Are Oceania, to host a day-long event aimed at empowering the next generation of Micronesians. An estimated 400 high school and middle school students filled UH Mānoa’s Jefferson Hall for the Micronesian Youth Summit.

Students listen to older Micronesian college students share their wisdom on preparing for entrance and completion of their college education.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“My name is Jermine Kaipat. I am Carolinian, Chamorro, Palauan, Chuukese. So I’m from Palau, Saipan, Guam, and Chuuk,” says Kaipat.

Kaipat joined his classmates from Farrington High School at the summit. He heard first-hand accounts of migration from Micronesian college students, lawyers, government officials, engineers, social workers, and more. Their experiences inspired Kaipat.

Students at the Micronesian Youth Summit line up for lunch. The summit's theme was Navigating Success, in honor of the strong tradition of navigation in Micronesia.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“We all struggle and we all have our hard times,” says Kaipat, “But if we all come together, we’re like a pillar. All of us can hold anything not matter how heavy it can be.”

Eight-grader Jekwa Billiam came here as a child from Majuro, Marshall Islands. She felt a sense of pride after hearing other Micronesians share their stories of success.

Jekwa Billiam (bottom left) poses with her fellow classmates from Waipahu Intermediate School at the Youth Summit.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“Be real instead of being fake, like show people who you are,” says Billiam.

Billiam proudly tucked her Waipahū Intermediate School t-shirt into her urohs – a black one-piece skirt with an embroidered bright pink and green pattern. She says, the loose-fitting skirt is a sure tell sign of Micronesian identity.

“This is what girls wear,” says Billiam.

In this space, there were no stereotypes to combat. No explanations to give. In a world that often sees them as a troublesome statistic, this next generation of migrants are on a journey to reclaim their narrative.

“It’s knowing that you have a voice,” says Carl, “And being able to go out into the community and say, ʻHey, this is who I am and this is where I’m from, and you need to listen to me because I matter.’”