Marshallese community adjusts to life on Garden Isle

HANAPEPE — There are over 200 former residents of the Marshall Islands on Kaua‘i, and they are adapting to Kaua‘i’s (comparatively) fast-paced lifestyle, leaders of the community said last week.  

The first wave of Marshallese came to Kaua‘i around 2005, according to Pastor Bemry Lieney Bunglick of the Marshallese United Church of Christ (UCC) in Hanapepe. As people find jobs in area restaurants and hotels, they use their money, as well as their annual tax returns, to reunify their families.

“We don’t know when there is another wave coming,” Bemry said. “I feel that those who come here are moving to a better place to maintain their families with better education, health and all that. That is my theory.”

Bemry said he believes that finding better employment opportunities make the other adjustment issues manageable. With a job, people can maintain a stable family.

Bemry’s church operates out of the Hanapepe Hawaiian Congregational Church. They hold services with fellowship and choir practice at 6 p.m. each Sunday.

He said it was UCC missionaries from Hawai‘i that went to the Marshall Islands in 1857. Much of that tradition is still maintained today.

“We keep what we have taught when the first missionary came to our island,” Bemry said. “There are things here that are new to us.”

Bemry was ordained in the Marshall Islands and migrated with his family to the Big Island in 2002. He was called to lead the small community on Kaua‘i in 2007. They had been meeting informally in their homes, he said.

“I came because I knew that it was God calling me to look after these people,” Bemry said. “I didn’t know where I was going, what I was going to do, or how I was going to live. I just came.”

Co-Pastor Shem Korn also came from the Big Island in 2008. He felt his place was here.

“It was all part of God’s plan,” Korn said.

The partnership with United Church of Christ was formed in Koloa, and moved to Hanapepe in 2011. The pastors alternate weekly services.

“It is really important that we keep our tradition as a church,” Bemry said.

The choir leader is Joseph Ned, who is also the new Chair of Deacons. The Marshallese are famous for their gospel choirs and recently won the West Kaua‘i choir competition, Ned said.

Bemry’s congregation is now saving for their own church building. It would be that sense of place and permanence to serve as a foundation.

“We are looking forward to having some kind of church or a place where we can have freedom,” Bemry said.

There are around 17 couples that belong to the church, with an average of three-to-four children per family. The few people with vehicles will shuttle others to church, and Bemry said they are looking to acquire a bus.

There are more than 100 people in Bemry’s UCC church. Other church communities include the First Marshallese at Waimea UCC; Marshallese Assembly of God at the Aloha Church; and the Salvation Army in Lihu‘e.

The 2010 Census lists 221 Marshallese in Kaua‘i County in total of alone or in combination with another race or ethnicity. There are 6,316 Marshallese altogether in Hawai‘i, with 3,439 on O‘ahu, 1,998 in Hawai‘i County, and 693 on Maui.

Bemry said he believes the population has increased significantly since the last census.

Kaua‘i Mayor Bernard P. Carvalho said the island welcomes anyone who chooses to make the Garden Isle their home, including the Marshallese.

“Our hope is that all residents embrace our Holo Holo 2020 vision, which essentially calls for everyone to collaborate on growing Kaua’i responsibly,” Carvalho said.

The Mayor acknowledged a large group of Marshallese that play basketball and volleyball at Laukona Park in Hanama‘ulu. He said they help to maintain the park by weed-whacking along the perimeter of the park as well as the basketball court.

“Based on my experience, the Marshallese are like many ethnic groups that have recently immigrated here,” Carvalho said. “They’re a hard-working, close-knit community that are seeking a better life.”

Bemry credits strong families with keeping the community stable. The divorce rates are low, he said, because it carries a stigma in Marshallese culture.

It is difficult for low-wage households with children to make ends meet. He said the community relies on one-another for support, along with social services and the Salvation Army Food Bank.

There is limited English proficiency and education levels vary upon arrival. This has compounded the challenges for the adult new arrivals.

Transportation is a barrier with work and school when it is not on a bus route, Bemry said.

Bemry said new families must unlearn the concept of “Marshallese time” as they adjust to a new life where work and school schedules are strictly scheduled, he said.

As a Marshallese community liaison to the schools, Bemry said he is called in to help kids catch up in English or other subjects.

“Sometimes there are other problems,” Bemry said. “They are looking for advice or counseling. Sometimes we bring the parents in and we talk together.”

Approximately 44 percent of Marshallese in Hawai‘i are under age 15, and, according to Bemry, the children born here tend to assimilate well, while those who come as teenagers have more challenges.

At the church or at the schools, Bemry talks to kids and parents about widening their social circles and avoiding drugs and truant behavior. In church, he said youth are taught to maintain their Christian values.

Lack of citizenship is proving to be another barrier as kids graduate from area schools and are accepted into college. The financial aid does not go very far, Bemry said, and citizenship is sometimes a barrier to other needed programs and scholarships.

Diem Clements is a member of the UCC Board of Deacons, and also director of the Marshallese Community Organization.

Clements received a microenterprise grant to build upon community skills and gifts. He and others crafted a scale model tibnol sailing canoe with hopes to build more to sell and raise funds for other projects.

The Marshallese are renowned sailors and they continue to sail Micronesian waters using the traditional inter-island long voyage canoe. The tradition of navigating by the stars and sun has largely disappeared, said Bemry, because the knowledge is passed on to the royals.

“They kept it for themselves and that is why it is fading away,” Bemry said. “They don’t teach anybody and the knowledge is gone.”

The Marshall Islands are made up of 29 atolls and five islands in a land area of approximately 112 square miles. There are around 68,000 inhabitants living along 1,156 islands and inlets.

The Marshallese-American population tripled in size to around 22,434 between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census. This rapid increase came in part from the Compacts of Free Association agreement.

The agreement came 40 years after nuclear weapons testing was conducted near the islands. It allows displaced Marshallese and other Micronesians to travel without visas throughout the United States.

Bemry was just a boy when the U.S. conducted its last atmospheric nuclear detonation of a hydrogen bomb in 1958. He said he witnessed it from Ailuk Atoll near the center the Marshal Islands.

“We just saw the redness and we heard the sound,” he said. “We didn’t know what it was but it lasted for an hour or so and filled the western skyline.”

It was the last of 67 nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific Islands Proving Grounds since 1946. Atmospheric testing was banned in 1963.

Radiation levels have decreased over the decades as efforts to remove contaminated topsoil and potassium fertilizers neutralized radiation, according to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Contamination to surrounding islands came from consumption of plants and animals that absorbed radionuclides. Mass importation of foods in the Marshall Islands continues to this day, according to the Marshall Islands Dose Assessment and Radioecology Program.

The U.S. government has since constructed housing and water treatment facilities on the exposed islands. Bemry said inhabitants don’t want to return and continue to suffer high rates of thyroid cancer and genetic defects.

Bemry said simply that most Marshallese came here for health reasons and depend on continued care that is otherwise not available to them.

According to the Hawai‘i Department of Human Services, the Marshallese and Micronesian groups comprise less than one-percent of the population, but utilize up to 40 percent of various health and social programs.

A University of Hawai‘i epidemiology study on Micronesian migrant health issues by professors Seiji Yamada and Ann Pobutsky, noted a growing concern about people from subsistence cultures now living a relatively sedentary lifestyle. The Marshallese are now appearing more mainstream with rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, the study said.

• Tom LaVenture, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or


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