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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.’”