Islanders Migrating To Arkansas The Marshall Islands are located thousands of miles from the United States, in the Pacific Ocean. Faced with a high cost of living and rising unemployment, thousands of Marshallese have been moving to the U.S., many of them to the small community of Springdale, Ark.
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Islanders Migrating To Arkansas

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Islanders Migrating To Arkansas

Islanders Migrating To Arkansas

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The world economic crisis is even affecting a place as remote as the Marshall Islands. Last year, three percent of its population moved to the United States, and many Marshallese are traveling 6,000 miles from their Pacific home to a small Ozarks town, where the local economy is still strong.

Jacqueline Froelich of member station KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas reports.

JACQUELINE FROELICH: A colorful crowd of Marshallese celebrating the 30th anniversary of their nation's independence stares at 13-year-old Josiana Chungong(ph) as she belts out the "Star Spangled Banner."

(Soundbite of song, "Star Spangled Banner")

Ms. JOSIANA CHUNGONG: (Singing) As the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.

FROELICH: No one holds a hand over a heart. It's not their tradition, but huge gatherings are. Six thousand Marshallese in Springdale have been joined by several thousand more islanders from migrant communities in Hawaii, Oregon and California. They started to come to Arkansas two decades ago, after a Marshallese man took a job in a poultry slaughterhouse. Word quickly spread back on the islands that was money to be made in the Ozarks and rent was cheap. Twenty-one-year-old Angeluck Lubbon(ph) has lived here nine years.

Mr. ANGELUCK LUBBON: We're really close with our families. Like, one family moved here, like, even though it's your uncle, he's going to try to bring his sisters, kids and his brother's kids, everybody else, to come here. Like, there's no jobs back in Marshalls.

FROELICH: Lubbon works the night shift at Tyson Foods and is enrolled in community college. He's studying to be an accountant. Other islanders work in the region's retail, medical and restaurant industries. But back home, unemployment is staggering and the cost of living worse. Last year, more than 1,600 Marshallese left their Pacific archipelago - a big number, considering only 53,000 live on the islands.

Under an agreement with the U.S., any Marshallese can move here with just a passport - and most show up in Arkansas, which is why they've opened a consulate in town. Consul General Carmen Chong Gum.

Ms. CARMAN CHONG GUM (Consul General): I have a passion to help our people, and having lived in the United States for so many years, I know what it takes to succeed.

FROELICH: And living in Springdale should be a cinch, having survived typhoons, sand and waves of colonialists and 67 U.S. atomic bomb tests.

Juanita Lokbol's(ph) homeland, Bikini Atoll, is still radioactive. But most of her family live in Arkansas now. She and her sister, Ruth Ann(ph), wait for them to share a feast of chicken, rice, fresh papaya and coconut pudding. Eyeing the food, Lokbol says she likes it here - sort of.

Ms. JUANITA LOKBOL: I've been thinking about moving, but since my whole family is here, I don't think I will ever be able to do that. It's how Marshallese say (Foreign language spoken), which means…

Ms. RUTH ANN LOKBOL: Your body wants…

Ms. J. LOKBOL: …my body wants to…

Ms. R. LOKBOL: But your heart…

Ms. J. LOKBOL: …but my heart just can't do it, no, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FROELICH: Staying in the Ozarks at 1,300 feet above sea level might be a good idea. Climate scientists speculate the low-lying Marshall Islands may be inundated with the rising oceans over the next century.

For NPR News, I'm Jacqueline Froelich in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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