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Marshall Islanders in Dubuque

Updated: Jul 7, 2020

What are the Marshall Islands?

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is an island nation in the center of the Pacific Ocean, consisting of more than 1,100 islands and islets. The largest of the islands is Majuro, where more than half of the Marshall Islanders live. Many of the smaller islands are so far apart that no other islands are visible. Colonization, with all of its negative connotations, began with the Japanese in the early 1900s. U.S. bombing of Japanese bases there during WWII resulted in lasting damage to the land and resulted in destruction of traditional ways of life. After WWII, the US occupation was accompanied by nuclear testing. Between 1946 to 1958, the United States tested 67 nuclear weapons at its Pacific Proving Grounds located in the Marshall Islands, including the largest atmospheric nuclear test ever conducted by the U.S., code named Castle Bravo. These bombs were over 7,200 times more powerful than the atomic weapons used during World War II. In 1956, the United States Atomic Energy Commission regarded the Marshall Islands as “by far the most contaminated place in the world”.

The Marshall Islands and the US

Marshallese women cutting coconuts

The Marshall Islands and two other island nations have agreements with the US called the Compact of Free Association (COFA). Although not explicitly stated as such, the COFA appears to have been executed as a form of compensation for the nuclear testing, along with some military base opportunities. Approximately 1,000-1,500 Micronesians have served in the US military. Citizens of the COFA states may live and work in the U.S., while U.S. citizens may live and work in the COFA states. The 1986 COFA for Marshall Islands was renewed in 2003 and is to be renewed in 2023.

Healthcare troubles

From 1986 to 1996, Marshall Islanders living in the US were able to enroll in Medicaid and Medicare. That ended with what is described as an oversight buried deep in the language of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. For the last 24 years, Marshallese people living in the US have been without these essential health care safety nets. Unfortunately, Marshallese people really needed those services and have suffered without them. Marshallese have experienced higher-than-normal rates of radiation-related illnesses – cancers, nutrition-based illnesses (diabetes and obesity), and hypertension. Since 1996, states like Iowa with COFA migrants have been forced to absorb the costs of providing health and social services, education, and public safety in accordance with unfunded federal mandates. Many of the health problems are directly related to US nuclear testing in their islands, resulting in contaminated air, land, and water. Decades of eating food that is shipped from far away has habituated some poor menu choices, including rice and other starchy foods. Starch converts to sugar and that opens the door to diabetes. Adult Marshallese in the US experience a 40% incidence of diabetes, compared to 6-7% for the general US adult population. Many live in extreme poverty and most Marshallese adults speak little or no English. Marshallese children born in the US, of course, are US citizens.

Why did Marshall Islanders decide to come to Dubuque?

The first five families came in the 1970s, so the men could attend seminary at University of Dubuque. The families enjoyed the hospitality of Dubuque, and soon additional family members came to join them. Some came from Hawaii, some from Arizona, some from other gatherings of Marshall Islanders in other states, and many came directly from the Marshall Islands. They came to be with family, for education and employment, and for healthcare. Remember, Medicaid was available to them in the US in those early years. Some had been babies or small children in the islands during the nuclear testing of the 1940s and 50s, and some Dubuque Marshallese can recall playing in the ashy fallout dust, thinking it was snow.

Marshallese life in Dubuque

Marshall Islanders are very welcoming and very inclusive, but they also really enjoy being with each other. All Marshallese in Dubuque have many other relatives here, so no one is alone. Many day-to-day tasks are shared, like childcare, transportation, and cooking. Many Marshallese people are technologically savvy and communicate with each other frequently by cell phone and Facebook. Religion is central to Marshallese life, and there are now seven Marshallese churches in Dubuque. Dubuquers might think it is unlikely that a people who came from warm places would thrive in Iowa’s frigid winters, but the other aspects of living in Dubuque were alluring enough to compensate for the winter chills.

Important cultural events

Marshallese children at a Christmas celebration

First birthdays are major events in the lives of Marshall Islanders. After the nuclear devastation in the islands, infant mortality soared. For a baby to survive to its first birthday was a cause of great celebration, equivalent to a wedding reception for other parts of American society. Marshallese people routinely travel many hours, sometime crossing the country, to attend a first birthday celebration, a wedding, or a funeral. Such events are likely to include a traditional pig roast to honor the celebrants. Another important date is May 1, Constitution Day, celebrating the Marshall Islands becoming an independent republic in 1979. The Marshallese community in Dubuque celebrates this each year with a large public celebration, inviting everyone in Dubuque to participate in their culture close up. Two religious events are also very special to Marshallese people: Christmas and Gospel Day, which is on the first Friday of December and celebrates the first arrival of Christian missionaries to the islands in 1857.

COVID-19 and the Marshallese

As of early July 2020, seven Marshallese have died of COVID-19. This is almost 1% of the total Marshall Islander population in Dubuque. To underscore the inequity of this statistic, consider this: if 1% of all Dubuque County people died from COVID-19, that would be about 900 people. In fact, 22 Dubuque County people have died to date. Many more Marshallese have been seriously ill in the ICU with COVID-19 and were able to recover. The sad fact is that 24 years of lack of access to proper care through Medicaid seriously weakened a people who were already at risk for many diseases. Then, when COVID-19 struck, they had very little defense. Poverty and large multi-generational households have made medical isolation difficult and sometimes impossible.

What do Marshall Islanders want other Dubuquers to know about them?

Marshallese people want to fit in. They want to be successful. They want to learn. They want to be healthy. They have a lot of faith, and trust deeply in God. Because of their history with water and navigation, they are attracted to the Mississippi River and are happy to be near it.

“If you see us in Walmart or Aldi or around town, don’t be afraid to come up and greet us. Say ‘Yakwe’. It lets us know that you see us and we are welcome. We love Dubuque, because it is our home!”


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