The Marshall Islands: Irene Maun’s journey

Marshallese woman tells her story on the scarred history between the US and Marshall Islands

During the 2020 Midwest Culturally Inclusive Conference, I attended a breakout session called “Thinking Outside The Box.” This session changed me and the way I look at history. The presenters, Suzanne Stroud and Irene Maun, lead the Dubuque Pacific Islander Health Project.
During the presentation, native Marshall Islander Maun shared her story and through it she shed light on the scarred history between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands. I was shocked; I had never heard the full, unadulterated story before. Even as an audience member, I was overwhelmed and outraged by the ongoing affliction of the Marshallese people.
Because of this, I want to share Maun’s story. Hers is the history of the Marshallese people, who have been continuously impacted by the consequences of nuclear weapon testing that we, as a country, have yet to fully face.
If you look up pictures of the Marshall Islands, you get images of clear blue water and freckles of islands surrounded by coral. They look like paradise. Can you imagine leaving a place like that, only to find yourself in the Midwest? I can’t. And yet, these islands seated on coral atolls are currently being swallowed up by the rising tides of the surrounding ocean as climate change slowly eats away at the remaining islanders’ homes.
The Marshall Islanders will be in danger as soon as 2030. Stroud described their predicament as a “canary in the coal mine” situation: they will be some of the first to experience the dire consequences of climate change. People are going to have to leave, yet again forced out of their homes by circumstances they neither created, nor can control.
The Marshall Islands became a U.S. Trust Territory in 1947, and remained a U.S. territory throughout the Operation Crossroads nuclear weapons testing on Bikini Atoll in July of 1946, and the detonation of over 60 more nuclear bombs on and around the Marshall Islands up until 1958. They became sovereign in 1986.
There are many pop culture references to the nuclear catastrophe of Operation Crossroads, but the most well-known is Spongebob Squarepants and the cartoon characters’ home of Bikini Bottom.
The Operation Crossroads bomb was reportedly, and unexpectedly, 1,000 times stronger than the one dropped on Nagasaki, Japan.
Stroud and Maun explained how the nuclear shock spread further than expected. Impact from the Operation Crossroads bomb collided, pulverized and mixed with the coral of nearby atolls and fell as white powder onto the islands. Children thought it was snow, and they played in the radioactive powder. The children who washed off in the sea were better off than those who went to sleep with nuclear waste in their hair: their tongues blistered, and their hair fell out.
The U.S. later “cleaned up” contaminated soil on Enewetak Atoll, where they had conducted a dozen biological weapons tests and dumped 130 tons of soil from an irradiated Nevada testing site, according to the Los Angeles Times. They hid all of this nuclear waste beneath a concrete dome on the island, in the middle of a rising saltwater ocean known to erode concrete.
Trying to reconcile their disregard for the Marshallese people, the U.S. instituted the Compact of Free Association (COFA) in 1986, establishing a relationship of free association between the United States and the three Pacific Island sovereign states of the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau.
However, the health care reform in 1996 redefined COFA migrants and quietly kicked them off of food stamps and other very necessary assistance such as health insurance.
After the U.S. destroyed the islands’ food sources, they promised to provide for them. The U.S. shipped the islands high-sodium canned foods in a feeble attempt to make up for the damage done.
Stroud said that, if you think diabetes is a crisis in the U.S., you would be shocked by the percentage of diabetic people on the islands. In 2017, the Marshall Islands had the highest prevalence of diabetes worldwide, with nearly one-third of Marshallese adults suffering from the disease according to the Borgen Project. Their lack of healthy food sources fueled diabetes on the islands, making the lack of healthcare even more problematic.
Maun believes that by sharing personal stories we can connect better. I want to share her story because we, as Americans, especially now, need to remember that our past is not all poodle skirts and drive-in movies. We are scarred by our country’s inhumane treatment of those who we have seen in the past as “others.”
Only by connecting with people like Irene we can learn from the past and be open to empathy and progress. That being said, here is Irene Maun’s story:
In 2009, Irene and her husband flew to Hawaii. Her husband had diabetes and kidney failure. This was very common on her island. Almost everyone suffers from a chronic disease on the islands: diabetes, hypertension and cancer.
They moved to Hawaii and left everything behind. They had to leave their children. They stayed in Hawaii for three months, but couldn’t find healthcare without insurance. So, they flew to California for about a month, but still found no help.
They drove all the way from California to Inad, Oklahoma. Their legs were swollen and sore after driving for over three days. They heard about Dubuque about four months after that, moving in with their nephew and establishing themselves in Dubuque Crescent Community Health Center.
It was hard moving to the U.S. because of the language barrier and the difference in culture. Their children were young when they left. Irene is a mother of two daughters and two sons, and a grandmother of seven.
When it snowed, Irene only had slippers and a mumu to wear; there wasn’t snow back home.
Jobs kept denying her applications, but she kept calling and calling and calling. They always asked if she knew English. She only knew small things like “yes” and “no”.
So many times she wanted to cry, but she knew she had to be bold.Seven months later, she got a job caring for elderly nuns. This was the best she could do; she hadn’t graduated high school. She worked rooming, bathing and feeding others. With new resolve, she asked the sisters to teach her English. They taught her English through writing over two years while she worked for them.
Today, her children are here with her; they go to school. She still worries: are we going to be able to get Medicaid, Medicare? They need healthcare. She set aside her money and fought so hard to get her children here. She is homeless for now, but her husband is healthier, and her children have jobs, so she is happy.
Maun speaks Ponepeiin, Croation, Marshallese and English. She now works for the Dubuque Pacific Islander Health Project (DPIHP) with Stroud.
One of the things I found the most interesting about Pacific Islander culture is their circular understanding of time. For them, 11:30 doesn’t only happen today, it will come again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, forever. There are no imminent deadlines. Differences in culture such as this view of time are how judgements are formed and stereotypes are made.
Stroud stressed that they do not want to assimilate the Marshallese people to see time in our way. She also doesn’t want to destroy their sense of collectivism. She shared how, at a Marshallese church function, she could hardly make out whose children were whose because everyone cared for everyone else like family. She said it was beautiful.
Stroud and Maun case manage about 263 patients by themselves. Stroud expressed her frustration when others assume that Maun is simply a translator, as she does so much more than that. She is a translator, cultural broker, community leader, home visitor and appointment reminder.
At the end of the presentation, Stroud and Maun showed a video poem by Dan Lin and Kathy Jetnill called “Anointed.” It is a stunning poem and definitely worth a watch.