One day last spring, Spokane resident Rick Burnham suddenly realized a lot of people from the Marshall Islands live here. Until then he had no idea where the Marshall Islands were.
It was May 1, and Burnham drove four young Mormon missionaries to Plante’s Ferry Park in Spokane Valley. The park was filled with 2,000 or more people – all Marshall Islanders, he was told. They were celebrating Constitution Day, a major holiday in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, located 2,400 miles southwest of Hawaii.
“The park was packed and there were grills everywhere” filling the air with the aroma of chicken, he said.
“It was an eye-opener,” said Burnham, who’s retired and serves as a counselor with the Parkside Branch, part of the Spokane Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Across the region companies, churches, schools and other organizations are making the same discovery, that people from the Marshall Islands are one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in Spokane County. Numbers are hard to come by, but local refugee assistance agencies estimate the local population of Marshallese is third to Russians-Ukrainians and Latinos.
In Spokane Public Schools, the number of students whose primary language is Marshallese is second only to Russian-speaking students. Hillyard and northeast Spokane have the largest concentration of Marshallese residents, judging by school enrollment.
Residents of the islands have left their homeland in large numbers, in part because the Marshallese economy has been losing jobs and because the United States gives them the option of entering the country without a visa and staying indefinitely. That status stems from the use of the islands as a U.S. nuclear testing area during the Cold War.
Like local Vietnamese and Ukrainian populations, the first Marshallese coming to Spokane received help from area churches. Others followed, drawn by ties of family and friendship.
In the U.S., they face the challenge of fitting into a society where few people understand Marshallese values and history, said Holly Barker, a University of Washington anthropology professor in Seattle.
Marshallese have an outlook on life that Americans might see as out of step with Western values, she said. One is the Marshallese sense that deadlines and schedules are loose and fluid. Another is a strong notion of privacy that discourages sharing personal concerns outside one’s immediate family.
Barker lived in the Marshall Islands and now holds the job of a senior adviser to the islands’ U.S. ambassador. Americans need to know the Marshallese are very adaptive, she said, noting that theirs is a culture that remained intact despite 400 years of colonization and a dozen years serving as a nuclear weapons test ground.
“The Marshallese are the consummate survivors,” she said.
A mobile population
Roughly 800 Pacific Islanders lived in Spokane County in 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. That classification covers the Marshallese but also other Micronesian and Pacific nationalities. The 2010 follow-up census didn’t update that number at the county level.
But Karen Morrison, director of Spokane’s Odyssey World International, a nonprofit that provides services for immigrants here, said estimates of the Marshallese population in Spokane County range from 2,400 to 3,000.
Based on U.S. census figures, the largest populations of Marshallese in the U.S. are in Arkansas, Hawaii and California.
Finding an accurate number is complicated by the tendency of Marshallese to move. The government places no restrictions on their residence, so they are more mobile than other ethnic groups, Morrison said.
Take Serphen Lomae, 33, who moved to Spokane in April 2011. Lomae left the islands at 19 and moved to Reno, Nev. He lived there six months before moving to find a job in Arkansas. While there he met his wife, Meritha, and the couple moved to La Grande, Ore., where Lomae worked for two years and they started a family. They next moved to Honolulu, but his job on Oahu was eliminated in early 2011. Lomae, his wife, and their two sons and two daughters came to Spokane, which he had visited in 2004.
“It’s OK, a good place, and I like the winter,” Lomae said.
But finding a job wasn’t easy here, even though he speaks comfortably in English, his second language. “I would watch TV or movies and repeat the words, so I knew how to speak in English,” he said.
A month ago he landed a job at CTX, a Spokane Valley concrete company. He was able to help two other Spokane Marshallese get jobs there, too.
“What I like is the company is very good with (health) benefits. It’s supposed to be maybe the second-best (in Spokane) for health,” he said.
His goal, he added, is to go to school and earn a degree in nursing, then find a job in that field.
Leaving the islands
Charles Paul, the Marshall Islands’ ambassador to the U.S., said the embassy doesn’t know how many islanders have settled in North America. Some sources suggest as many as 22,000 Marshallese now live in the U.S. The islands have a listed population of 68,000, although only 53,000 of those are native Marshallese. The rest are U.S. military members, aid groups and missionaries.
The U.S. government became the administrator of the islands after World War II. From 1946 to 1958, the military conducted 67 nuclear tests in the islands.
In 1986, the islands became the independent Republic of the Marshall Islands. In part to repay the Marshallese for contaminating their land with radioactivity, the U.S. government gave those citizens the option to enter this country as “legal non-immigrants.”
Children born in the United States to Marshallese families have dual citizenship.
The 1986 agreement does not provide any other specific economic, medical or social services in this country, Ambassador Paul said.
In exchange for the special status, the U.S. government keeps a number of military bases in the Marshall Islands.
Paul said the chief reason Marshallese come to the U.S. is economic incentives, “including both jobs and education.”
Medical and environmental concerns also play a part, he said. “There are concerns about nuclear contamination and there are those who have moved because of this reason,” Paul said.
Morrison, at Odyssey World International, has worked closely with Spokane’s Marshallese population and has observed their close family ties and group celebrations.
A major event in their culture is the kemmem – a huge party that marks a child’s first birthday. “A kemmem will last until 3 in the morning or later, with loads of food, music and dancing,” Morrison said.
Leke Ankien, 36, attended a recent Spokane kemmem at the East Central Community Center.
Ankien, with his wife and three children, drove to the party from the Tri-Cities. The distance was no big deal; a week earlier he had hosted a kemmem for his own son, Adrian, and more than 100 Spokane Marshallese drove to Kennewick for that event, he said.
The Spokane kemmem began with a Marshallese pastor offering a prayer and a blessing for the couple and their 1-year-old. After more than 800 guests went through a long food line and loaded their plates with chicken, rice and shrimp, the parents brought their son to the head of the room.
The guests formed a line and began the customary blessing of the child. One by one they placed money in a woven basket next to the child. Each person touched the boy’s hand or cheek.
Ankien, who lived in Spokane until taking a new job in the Tri-Cities in December, said the kemmem celebrates the three main cultural values of the Marshallese.
“First is education. We want our children to be educated,” he said. “Second is our religion. And third, it’s family. Those are the most important.”
Ankien, like many Marshallese, followed the path of relatives to Spokane. He arrived in 2001 after first living in California, Hawaii and Salem, Ore.
When he first arrived in Spokane, he lived with his mother and father, plus eight other relatives. His parents were separated. “But they still could live together, as friends,” he said.
It’s typical for the Marshallese to share homes with many relatives. In Kennewick, Ankien only has his wife and three children. “It’s almost too empty for me.”
Potluck parent meetings?
Spokane-area schools saw a large influx of Marshallese students around 2006. Spokane Public Schools has 370 students whose primary language is Marshallese; there are 530 Russian-speaking students and 360 Spanish-speakers.
Phil Koestner, coordinator of the district’s English Language Development program from 2007 to 2011, said many in the first group of Marshallese students were caught in culture clash. They found themselves disoriented by the test-driven, schedule-bound American style of education, Koestner said. The result was a rise in tardy school arrivals and late homework assignments.
Attempts to hold parent meetings with the Marshallese were frustrated; a meeting set for 6 p.m. with parents often didn’t start until 7 p.m. or later, Koestner said.
And contacting a parent about attendance issues or schoolwork was a challenge. Many Marshallese students do not stay with their parents, living instead in the care of an uncle or aunt. In addition, parents’ phone numbers often change as families move or switch cellphone plans.
“You can’t just use the (automated) robocalls, like we’ve been using to leave messages, in the case of the Marshallese,” Koestner said.
The district’s solution was to develop a Marshallese 101 project, a series of trainings, readings and personal outreach efforts to understand the islanders’ culture.
Brenda McDonald, principal at Garry Middle School, has been part of that still-ongoing 101 program. Her school on Spokane’s North Side has 28 Marshallese out of 625 students.
McDonald asked Garry staff to read the book “The Bomb” by Theodore Taylor. It looks in detail at the years 1946 to 1958, when the U.S. military used Bikini Atoll and other islands in the Marshalls, producing what the Atomic Energy Commission in 1956 said was “the most contaminated place in the world.”
Rogers High School has around 50 Marshallese in a student body of more than 1,400. Principal Lori Wyborney said the district has found ways to build bridges to the Marshallese. “It really helped when we got students involved in after-school activities. When that happened, they became more invested,” she said.
When such outreach programs have not been successful, the fault might be an imperfect understanding of how Marshallese view such public events, said Millie Hill, director of English development classes for the Mead School District.
Take parent nights, for example, Hill said; turnout for those events has been “terrible.”
The solution was to learn more about social gatherings in the island culture, Hill said. One of the district’s bilingual specialists told her the Marshallese are reluctant to come to events where they aren’t bringing food.
“We should have made the parents nights a potluck,” Hill said. “That was a nuance of the Marshallese culture that we didn’t understand.”
The path to college
School officials say a key goal is to see an increase in graduation and college admission rates for Marshallese students. Pacific Islanders, the category the Marshallese fall into, have on-time high school graduation rates below the average, based on the past three years of data.
In 2010 the average on-time graduation rate for the Spokane district was 74 percent. Only 54 percent of those in the Pacific Islanders group graduated on time.
Lial Amram, 17, and Jonia Joel, 18, are seniors at Rogers who say they plan to start college next year or soon after graduation.
Both were born in Majuro, the capital city of the Marshall Islands. Both played in the same neighborhood, then took different paths to Spokane. Amram left the islands with her family when she was 12. Joel and her family moved away when she was 6. Both families moved first to Hawaii, then ended up in Spokane.
Amram said she’s moved five times in the four years her family has been in Spokane. She attended classes at Shadle Park and Mount Spokane before deciding to spend her senior year at Rogers.
Neither Amram nor Joel is fond of wearing flip-flops to school in the winter, something many other Marshallese do.
“I wait until it’s warmer before I wear flip-flops,” Amram said.
Her goal is to get a business degree and open a restaurant. Joel said she’ll take courses in history and would like to go to law school.
Both share a fierce pride in their culture and their sense of cultural identity.
Asked what she wants Spokane residents to know about the Marshallese people, Amram is quick to reply: “According to my dad, we have a right to be here, since the U.S. government did the testing on the islands.
“He said if anyone asks why you are here, tell them you have the right because the U.S. government owes us big time for what they did. And to tell them, they still owe us big time.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.