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Stories by Christopher Leonard
Photographs by Benjamin Krain
In the remote Marshall Islands, residents dream and save for years for a new life in Arkansas.
Dainah Amram remembers when her son Stevenson was a little boy who slept snuggled in the crook of her arm. In the small cinder-block shack on the Majuro atoll where he was raised, only memories remain of Stevenson. Three years ago, Amram borrowed $2,000 to send her son away.
Its unclear if he will ever return.
The loan bought Stevenson a one-way plane ticket to the United States, where he eventually settled in Springdale, Ark. For a year and a half, Amram spent more than half of her wages to repay the debt. She says it was worth the cost.
I saved his life, Amram said.
Her son, she explains, was saved from an empty future in the neighborhood outside her window. White streets of crushed shell and coral narrowly divide clusters of plywood and cinder-block homes, few of which have running water.
Thousands of Marshall Islanders like Stevenson now live in Springdale. This is the story of their past, their present and perhaps their future as they become Arkansans.
The Majuro atoll is the capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a nation of hundreds of small islands flung across thousands of square miles of Pacific Ocean.
From the air, Majuro looks like an impossibly thin ribbon of green, marooned in a world of blue. Atolls are formed by coral reefs that grow upon the remnants of ancient, submerged volcanoes. After eons, the atolls form as rings of narrow islands and islets surrounding sapphire-blue lagoons.
For time out of memory, the Marshallese survived on these strips of land by fishing in the atolls lagoons and gathering fruit. When the U.S. Navy took control of Majuro in 1944, the sailors encountered roughly 1,000 people living in thatched huts and lush jungle.
The population on Majuro now is 23,700 or more, thanks to the largess of Americans who have subsidized the islands with hundreds of millions of dollars. Imported food sustains a population that far exceeds the islands resources.
Most of the islanders live in crowded neighborhoods like Amrams, with an average of eight people to a house.
In many ways, Majuro is like an enormous waiting room whose residents are stuck between two worlds, having abandoned their old culture for a modern life that has yet to materialize.
Every week people move to Majuro or Ebeye, the Marshall Islands other urbanized island, abandoning lush outer islands where traditions have sustained them for generations. The densely packed neighborhoods of Majuro and Ebeye largely have been stripped of vegetation. The inhabitants live in a cash economy.
Trading Micronesian tradition for modernity has come at a cost for young men like Stevenson Enoch, Amrams son, who uses his fathers last name. Their choices are few.
A recent Marshall Islands government report said there are only 85 more jobs in the islands than there were a decade earlier. But there were 3,189 more people seeking jobs. Alcoholism is more common than lucrative employment. The suicide rate is among the highest in the world.
The Marshall Islands population has soared in the past half-century it was just 14,163 in 1958 and reached 30,873 in 1980, according to census records. Now its about 58,000.
Springdale has become an escape valve for the Marshallese. The small industrial city is host to the largest population of Marshall Islanders outside of the home islands.
Many islanders call Springdale the land of opportunity, probably unaware that Arkansas license plates once carried that slogan.
Marshallese immigrants benefit from extraordinarily close ties to the United States that were codified when the countries signed the Compact of Free Association in 1986, when the islands gained their independence. Marshallese are allowed to live and work in the United States indefinitely without visas. As a result, few of those who immigrate seek U.S. citizenship.
Enoch, 27, was hard at work just before dawn recently, finishing his nine-hour shift at the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Springdale. His journey of 6,000 miles led him to the shredded-cheese section of the store, where he stocks shelves.
Dressed in baggy jeans and a T-shirt, he opened small boxes full of cheese packets. He held them up for comparison against a display where more than 100 varieties of cheese hung. Then he matched the package labels to those on the wall and hung them there in bunches.
Enoch says he makes $8 an hour. Thats quadruple his mothers pay. On the rare occasion when he calls her, she asks him if he will return. He says no. He thinks he would likely end up unemployed and living in his mothers home.
I wont go back and let her work for me, he said.
Thousands of Marshallese have made the same choice. Working in chicken plants, factories and fast-food restaurants, they enjoy a lifestyle that only a few could afford back home. In Springdale public schools, their children get a better education than most of the top-ranked private-schools students on the islands.
Its unclear exactly how many Marshall Islanders call Springdale home. A special U.S. Census Bureau survey in 2001 indicated that there were 2,000 to 6,000 of the islanders in Springdale, a city that then had about 46,000 residents.
Since that survey, the influx has continued, islanders say. In the Springdale School District, the number of children speaking Marshallese as a first language grew from 226 in 2000 to 623 this fall.
Yet, the Marshallese often go unnoticed in Springdale, overshadowed by the 23,500 Hispanics who arrived in Northwest Arkansas during the 1990s. Many Marshallese say its not uncommon for them to be mistaken for immigrants from Mexico or Central America.
Springdale resident Debbie McCarty says she assumed that the immigrants working with her at the Bentonville Plastics factory were all Mexicans. Then she noticed something odd about them they didnt wear shoes on the factory floor. Bosses let them put mesh coverings on their feet. McCarty asked around and discovered that they were islanders who go barefoot while inside, according to their custom.
Virtually everyone in the Marshall Islands has heard of Arkansas. Opinions about faraway Springdale vary widely. Some people dream of one day going there. Others believe that their migrant brethren have abandoned their culture.
But few Marshallese are untouched by the Arkansas community, regardless of what they think of it. Moses Alik, for example, says he will never move to Arkansas. He lives and works on Majuro and doesnt want to leave his home and family.
Nonetheless, when presented a baseball cap bearing the University of Arkansas logo, Alik flashed a big smile and exclaimed: Razorback!
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LONG ROAD TO SPRINGDALE
The streets of Majuro begin to stir just after sunrise. Dented, dusty taxicabs troll up and down the main road, gathering residents for their 50-cent rides to work.
A woman in a brown dress pushes a wheelbarrow full of garbage across the road, toward a large orange bin already brimming with the neighborhoods trash. She wedges her load next to the large bin and piece by piece heaves her refuse over the side. Beyond her, waves roll in from the Pacific, stroking the beach in a steady rhythm.
Across the street, another family starts its day in a cluster of shacks surrounded by a wall of corrugated tin. Three girls, perhaps 10 years old, squat around a bucket full of water in a courtyard. They take turns dipping a cup, pouring water over their heads and splashing their faces.
It is a safe bet at this time of morning that Gordon Bellu will be somewhere nearby, already hard at work. Wiry and energetic, Bellu is manager of two gas stations owned by one of the islands larger companies, Robert Reimers Enterprises. Frequently, he crosses the main road to check on the properties, a walkie-talkie in his hand and a cell phone clipped to his belt.
Bellu puts in 12-hour days with one goal in mind moving his family to Arkansas. His sister lives in Springdale and tells him stories about high-paying jobs and great public schools. He wants his two children to get an education there and avoid the kind of life he has lived on Majuro.
The long road to Springdale is steeply uphill for Marshallese like Bellu. Their wages are far lower than those of their counterparts in Arkansas. At the same time, the consumer goods they buy are more expensive because they are shipped from abroad. A 12-ounce can of Spam, an island favorite, sold on Ebeye island recently for $4. At a Wal-Mart in Springdale, a can costs $1.90.
One-way airfare to Arkansas costs around $1,500, a small fortune for someone who earns $2 an hour the minimum wage on the islands. Many Marshallese take out loans for the trip and send one family member, who then works in Springdale and saves money to bring the next relative. Bellu wants to take a different route. I dont want to leave some behind. My kids are not old enough to take care of themselves, and my wife I dont want to leave her. I want us all to go, he said.
Bellu has avoided many of the pitfalls that keep some Marshallese penniless. He swore off alcohol 11 years ago because it was too expensive. He has won four promotions in four years, going from sales clerk to manager. He earns an unusually high $5 an hour.
Every two weeks, he manages to sock away $25 in a savings account that he hopes will get him to Arkansas. At last word, he had saved roughly $800. He dips into the account every now and then to buy school supplies or food for his children. Thats why it goes so slow, he said with a laugh.
While the Republic of the Marshall Islands is one of the more remote places on the globe, it has a close relationship with the United States that is almost unparalleled. Marshallese serve in the U.S. armed forces. There is a U.S. post office on Majuro, and the country has a ZIP code and uses the American dollar.
This relationship started during World War II when American soldiers captured the Marshall Islands from the Japanese, who had ruled them for 30 years. More than 600 U.S. Marines, airmen and sailors lost their lives in several battles across the islands; the Japanese suffered thousands of casualties.
The U.S. government administered the islands after the war as a trust territory for the United Nations, until they gained independence in 1986. The Americans built schools and roads and sent bureaucrats to run it all, said Robert Kiste, an anthropologist who has studied the islands for 40 years. The United States interest in the islands was purely strategic because of their location and remoteness, Kiste said.
That was the only reason the U.S. would even agree to [having] a trust territory, Kiste said. It was strategic and remains that way. The right of strategic denial allows the United States to control which ships pass through 750,000 square miles of ocean around the islands.
The main island of Kwajalein atoll, the largest atoll in the world, is home to a U.S. Army base that includes the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Site, a critical component of efforts to build a missile defense shield. The same remoteness that allows missile testing played another role in history. On the morning of July 1, 1946, an enormous mushroom cloud rose over the Bikini atoll in the northwest corner of the Marshall Islands. Over the next 12 years, the United States detonated 67 atomic or hydrogen bombs in the area. The tests cost the islanders dearly. Residents of Bikini and nearby atolls were relocated to other islands and still live in a kind of exile. Bikini remains uninhabited.
Hundreds of residents of the Rongelap atoll were exposed to radioactive fallout when the United States detonated a hydrogen bomb near Bikini in 1954. Dozens died of cancer and other diseases. Rongelap remains largely uninhabited and contaminated with radiation. The United States has paid hundreds of millions of dollars to compensate the Marshallese for the atomic testing, including for cancer deaths believed to have been caused by the radiation.
All of this paved the way for the Republic of the Marshall Islands to remain intertwined with the United States after it attained independence. Tony DeBrum, one of the chief Marshallese negotiators of the Compact of Free Association, said immigration rights was a cornerstone of the agreement. His hope was that the rights would pave the way to opportunity that his government couldnt offer.
I think the story of Springdale is a crowning jewel in that hope, he said.
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The thousands of islanders living in Springdale can trace their passage directly to one man John Moody.
Moody recently returned home from working the night shift at a Tyson Foods plant in Clarksville and plopped down on a couch in his mobile home in the nearby town of Altus. He was the first Marshall Islander to move to Springdale and inadvertently created the immigrant community.
I said, if they want a better life, they better come here. So I start bringing them over, little by little. All those people I brought, they still live there today, he said. I thought they would go back home, he continued, smiling as if the whole thing seemed too strange. I didnt know that they would bring their neighbors and their friends and their brothers and their sisters.
Moody fulfilled a lifelong dream when he moved to the United States in 1979 with a scholarship to attend the University of Oklahoma. But his schooling in the Marshall Islands didnt equip him for college classes, he said. He spent more time boning up on his English than completing his homework.
A friend of Moodys suggested that they work in a chicken plant in Muskogee, Okla. The pay was $3.25 an hour a fortune in Moodys eyes, though just a little above minimum wage at the time. He dropped out of college and started working full time. Around 1986, Moody moved to Springdale, where he eventually got a job with Tyson Foods.
Around that time, there were Marshallese communities scattered throughout the United States. Interviews with dozens of islanders indicate that most of the communities started when the people arrived there to attend school on scholarships as Moody had done. The main communities that remain today are in Honolulu; Enid, Okla.; Costa Mesa, Calif.; and Portland, Ore. The second-largest community after Springdale is in Hawaii. The populations of most of the other communities are estimated to be in the hundreds. Increasingly, Springdale is the place to be.
Moody urged his relatives to move to Springdale during the 1990s, talking up the schools and jobs. It wasnt a hard sell, since the unemployment rate on the Marshall Islands grew from 12.5 percent in 1988 to 30.9 percent in 1999.
Springdale, meanwhile, was experiencing a boom in industrial jobs at chicken plants and other factories where English skills werent a necessity. Step by step, Springdale became a sweet spot for Marshallese pursuing a new life in America. While there were plentiful jobs elsewhere, Springdale also offered a low cost of living and a slower pace. In the tightly knit community of islanders, word spread fast about Springdales advantages.
Paul Lang, a native of the islands, left Costa Mesa when he heard about land prices in Springdale. He now owns a house in the Arkansas city. They cannot afford to rent those houses over there, he said, referring to California. Right now, a two-bedroom is like $1,000-something a month.
Langs Marshallese neighbors open their garage doors on warm sunny days to reveal improvised living rooms where men and women lounge on couches. Children roam from home to home as if they all belong to one family.
On Springdales congested highways, a large number of cars have tall CB radio antennas. The radios are popular with Marshallese who use them to communicate just as they do back home where telephone service is unreliable. They have a CB radio group called Big Yokwe Big Hello.
Among the new subdivisions in Springdale, houses here and there have shoe racks on front porches piled high with flip-flops and work boots, a sure sign of Marshallese within. Lang said some problems arose in the early days of the Marshallese community. The first immigrants werent aware of U.S. private property rights. Some islanders drank heavily on the weekends and ended up on the wrong side of the law when they passed out in neighbors yards, he said. Most behavior like that soon stopped.
Brian Simmons, spokesman for the Springdale Police Department, said the Marshallese are a law-abiding lot who havent put a strain on the citys law enforcement officers. Since most Marshallese in Springdale are bilingual, the police havent hired any translators. I think that they are probably a little quieter than what you would expect, Simmons said. They really appear to me to be a group of people that dont like trouble.
The Marshallese are on the lower economic rungs of Springdales work force. During the night shift at Tyson Foods Randall Road plant, about half of the workers are islanders. They are also common on the factory floor of Rockline Industries, which makes baby wipes and scented tissues.
There are slightly more men than women among the Marshallese in Springdale, according to the 2001 special census. The survey indicated that men and women alike get jobs when they arrive in Arkansas, and 77 percent of the population above age 16 is in the work force. Neighbors watch over one anothers children while parents work.
The trailblazer for the islanders has moved on. Moody said he chose to work in Clarksville and live in Altus because Springdale became too crowded. He still gets calls from new residents in Springdale who are trying to figure out where to get a drivers license or buy a whole pig to roast for parties.
I dont even know them, he said. They know my name, though.
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A KING IN LITTLE MAJURO
Stevenson Enoch recently ended his shift around 7 a.m. and walked out of Wal-Mart into a misty rain. Clouds on the horizon had just started to redden with the dawn. In some ways, the landscape Enoch saw is similar to that of his home island. Springdales one-story strip malls and stores form a jagged low skyline not unlike Majuros main street.
Differences are apparent. The Wal-Mart parking lot appeared larger than the grounds of the Marshall Islands Capitol. The cars and buildings are luxurious compared with those on Majuro. Enoch got into his car and drove toward U.S. 412, a traffic-snarled four-lane road bordered by factories, shopping centers and a few grassy fields.
Springdale has been a hub of blue-collar and agricultural jobs since the 1880s, said Brooks Blevins, an Ozarks historian. Apple orchards created a boom that was later replaced by poultry farming. The city is now home to Tyson Foods, the worlds biggest meat company, 0along with smaller poultry firms like Georges Inc.
Springdale isnt a tourist destination, but it long has drawn foreign-born workers like the Marshallese, said Susan Young, outreach director for the citys Shiloh Museum. Its kind of reflective of what people did in the pioneer days, Young said. Youd get here and write letters home saying: Man, you need to come to Northwest Arkansas. Its the land of milk and honey. That leads to these chain migrations. They come here for jobs first, quality of life second.
The Marshallese in Springdale were helped by the earlier, larger wave of arriving Hispanics. The Spanish-speaking immigrants not only attracted far more attention or criticism, in some cases they gave public agencies experience in dealing with new residents who didnt speak English.
While most of the islanders are bilingual, they sometimes need help dealing with complex issues in English. The Washington County unit of the state Department of Health has at least five full-time Hispanic translators and has added one for the Marshallese. At Springdale public schools, the English as a Second Language program hired a Marshallese tutor in 1997 when the need became apparent.
The Jones Center for Families, a public community center in downtown Springdale, has become a second home for many islanders. They celebrate the birth of their nation there with a festival organized by their own civic group, commemorating May 1, 1979, when the countrys constitution was signed, and Oct. 21, 1986, when full independence was gained. The event draws thousands of Marshallese from around the country.
Kessai Note, now president of the Marshall Islands, joined the celebration in 2003 when he was campaigning for the office. Enochs recent drive home from work took him through a quiet subdivision of single-family houses. The houses gave way to apartment buildings on Christy Drive.
On a typical warm day, groups of Marshallese women sit outside, chatting in their native tongue and wearing the colorful shin-length dresses favored back home. Groups of children run through the yards playing games. Marshallese boys play basketball in the parking lot as the steady beat of salsa music blares from a nearby truck where Hispanic teenagers linger. Like Majuro, there are communal trash bins along the street, overflowing with garbage.
McCarty, the woman who worked with the Marshallese at the plastics factory, lives with her husband and granddaughter in an apartment complex thats also home to several Marshallese families. Theyre really close-knit, very family-oriented, McCarty said. They all stay together, and they all take care of each other.
Cultures bump up against one another in crowded neighborhoods. Islanders tend to enter houses without knocking. Shortly after McCarty moved into her home, a Marshallese woman simply walked in the door. The two couldnt communicate, and the neighbor soon turned to leave. She didnt understand anything I said until I said, God bless you. She turned around and gave me a hug after that. Just inside the door of Enochs two-room apartment, a visitor encounters the telltale pile of shoes and flip-flops.
Eight people live here. Their living condition and the route they took to Springdale, are typical of the Marshallese community in Arkansas. Residents in this apartment live under the auspices of Mickey Mackphay, a middle-aged man who was born and raised on Majuro. Mackphay, one of 12 children, quit school during the third grade after his parents divorced. He hung around with older kids and moved from house to house.
I can see that there is no one going to show me what is the right thing to do. So I just live my own life, he said. He drank alcohol, joined a gang and considered suicide when he was a teenager. Mackphay said his life turned around when he found religion and got married on Majuro. He settled down and got a job driving a taxi.
Soon, Mackphay found Springdale. His aunt, who lived there, had sent a videotaped message home. Mackphay still recalls the camera panning over the interior of a fast food restaurant, so neat and clean, with luxurious tables and chairs. When I look, I can see nice clothes. Beautiful car. Beautiful house. I said: Oh man. Maybe one day if I am going to be there, it will be a different kind of life, he recalled. He saved enough money for a one-way plane ticket.
Mackphay, arriving alone in Springdale in 1995, quickly found employment at a Tyson Foods plant. He eventually rented the apartment and sent for his wife and two daughters to live with him. His home soon became a landing pad for other Marshallese moving to the area. Enoch and his girlfriend moved in because she is the niece of Mackphays wife.
Family ties are so strong on the Marshall Islands that they overwhelm concerns about personal property or sharing space, said Kiste, the anthropologist. When the islanders migrate to other countries, the family ties remain strong. They often depend on relatives for shelter, food and transportation when arriving somewhere new.
The special U.S. Census survey in 2001 found an average of seven people living in each Marshallese residence in Springdale. Crowded conditions in some Springdale residences prompted the City Council to adopt an ordinance in October that limits the number of occupants in each dwelling on the basis of the amount of floor space. No one had been cited for violating the ordinance by years end.
Despite crowded conditions by American standards, Marshallese in Springdale enjoy far more amenities than most of their friends and relatives have back home. Virtually all of the Arkansas homes have air conditioning, compared with 30 percent on the islands. They also have dependable electricity and water 24 hours a day; service on the islands is spotty.
Like many other Marshallese in Springdale, Mackphay says he probably will never return home.
If he returned, Mackphay would sink to the bottom of a tribal pecking order. On the islands, land is owned by a chieftain class called the iroij. Most residents essentially rent the land they live on from the iroij and support the chiefs with gifts of money and food.
Born a commoner, Mackphay is now the iroij of Apartment D on Christy Drive. He no longer works, and during the days is usually asleep on a pad in the middle of the apartments tidy living room. The walls around him are decorated with hand-woven artwork and portraits of his family. Back home, Mackphay would stand in line behind half a dozen siblings to inherit rights to the land his family has used for generations. I got too much family back on Majuro, he said.
For every Mickey Mackphay who has made it in Springdale, there seems to be a Gordon Bellu on Majuro hoping to follow him. Bellu says he gets off of work at 5 p.m. But somehow every night seems to be an exception. Near 6 oclock one night in September, he was stranded on a desolate stretch of road near the Marshall Islands energy plant. He went there to deliver a rental car and was waiting, walkie-talkie in hand, for a ride back home. Bellu said he wont buy a personal car, though he likely could afford it. He wants to save his money. I have to think about getting to the mainland.
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