“Fenuwei Chuuk:” Chuukese for “homeland.”
In Chuuk, off the northern coast of Papua New Guinea, coconuts grow on palm trees and taro plants spring from the ground. Homeowners fish in their own backyard. The spread of small, Pacific Ocean islands hosts 50,000 Chuukese people, families so close-knit that everybody weighs in on where to bury a loved one, and no one is homeless.
It’s a long way from home for the hundreds of Chuukese people now living in Cowlitz County. But they have become the fastest-growing minority in Kelso, prompting the school district to hire an interpretor for the Chuukese children in 2015. That year, Kelso schools saw four times the number of Chuukese kids as they did in 2012.
“I put in my application, and the very next day somebody called me back,” said 37-year-old Anter Sasuo, Kelso School District’s part-time Chuukese interpreter. Sasuo also has experience interpreting at a Hawaiian clinic.
The number is still small — 47 Chuukese students are currently enrolled — but the Chuukese, and those who work with them, say that number will continue to grow.
They’re likely right. The Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population has doubled in both Cowlitz and Clark counties in the past 15 years, according to the state Office of Financial Management. In Cowlitz County, the community has grown 18.5 percent in the past five years, with one-third of the county’s Chuukeese population age 19 or younger. In Clark County, the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population grew at an even faster rate than Cowlitz County’s: a 23.6 percent rise.
It started with one or two families, and their reasons for coming here varied. Most came seeking better opportunities for their families. Many found jobs at Foster Farms. Others, like Pastor Marvin Danis, were drawn to the area in connection with a missionary Catholic church — the Beyond the Reef Theological Center south of Portland in Aurora, Ore.
Beginning of a migration trend
Local Chuukese do have one common thread that ties them together: family.
On Sunday afternoons, the Women’s Club in Longview filled with Chuukese families for a Catholic service in their native tongue. Women dress in leis and colorful muumuus adorned with flower prints while men wear suits and ties or a button-up collar shirt. Babies are bundled up and sleep together on blankets on the floor beside their mothers.
“This is the center of the community,” Danis said after a Mother’s Day church service. “On Sunday we’re together.” The service was scattered with Sasuo’s family. His uncle was the pastor. His sister-in-law took a seat in front of him.
The church service lasts two to three hours, and then they eat. A whole fish, slabs of grilled chicken, several hefty slices of beef, cornmeal, breadfruit — are served for a single person.
Many Chuukese who now reside in Kelso first moved to Hawaii to provide their children with an American education. But the island state focused “more on the tourists than the local people,” Sasuo said. “That’s a big problem.”
Sasuo lived in Hawaii for 15 years, but like many Chuukese, he found that Hawaii had grown too expensive. The family migrated further east, moving to Kelso in May 2015 to live with his brother-in-law, one of the first Chuukese people to move here. Sasuo, his wife and two kids got their own place after about a year.
In the late 1990s, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization in Portland began working with Chuukese people, said Lee Po Cha, executive director for the organization. The community was relatively small then, Cha said, and Tongans and Samoans were the more prominent Pacific Islander populations. Over the past few years, Cha has seen the community grow and now may be the largest Pacific Islander population in the Portland area.
But Cha said he expects Portland’s growth to slow for one main reason — housing costs have soared. He says many have joined a cousin, or an uncle, or a brother across state borders. A family that pays $295 per square foot for a home in Portland can buy a home in Kelso for $124 a square foot, according to Zillow’s Home Value Index. (In Longview it’s $135 per square foot.) The median home value in Portland is $406,200 compared to just $150,400 in Kelso.
“That is one of the main reasons that they are moving out from this area to Southwest Washington,” Cha said. “One, their family is a pretty good size. To find those apartments that house anywhere between two to four bedrooms is no longer affordable.”
“We have the mentality that someday, we’ll go back to Chuuk,” Sasuo said. “If we were to go back to Chuuk someday, then we leave (family) behind somewhere they don’t belong. It’s very, very important.”
Family members even ship their relatives’ bodies back to Chuuk if they die away from Chuukese soil. It’s a costly one- to two-day trek back to Chuuk, involving a flight to Honolulu, another small plane to Chuuk’s capital island and a ferry to any of the smaller islands.
Sasuo had to ship his father and 23-year-old sister back to Chuuk from Hawaii at a cost of more than $10,000 each time — a plane ticket for himself, the price of shipping for the funeral home and a feast for the bereaved who visit him after the memorial.
In Portland it can be even more expensive at a $15,000 or $20,000 price tag, said Sadok Kapwich, the church’s deacon.
But for some traditions, like sending a relative’s body back to Chuuk, there’s a divide between the older and younger Chuukese generations, Sasuo said. Some choose to bury their loved ones here, Sasuo said, but it’s uncommon and must be a unanimous decision from the entire family
“If I have a choice, I would bury them here,” he said. “But it’s me against my whole family. ... I would love for them to change that and just let everybody choose for themselves.”
Sasuo’s hoping to be old enough when he dies to have his children choose, thinking they would prefer to bury him wherever he dies. Otherwise it would be his wife against the rest of his family, “and I won’t be there for it,” Sasuo said with a laugh.
Luckily, Chuukese don’t pay the full price of funeral costs out of pocket. Everybody knows everybody, Sasuo said. Friends and family all come together to chip in. It’s the reason, Sasuo said, there are no homeless people in Chuuk. Sasuo said he was “shocked” the first time he saw someone sleeping on the streets in Hawaii.
“When things like that happen, everybody comes together and helps each other out,” Sasuo said. “That’s something that I’m very proud of as a Chuukese.”
In Chuuk, Sasuo added, those who try to be independent get labeled as “American.” “Look at them, they’re trying to be American.” “They think they’re American, they can be on their own,” people would tease. Sasuo said it’s socially taboo not to accept help, for example, or to share the food or money that you have.
Sasuo said he wants to teach his kids a balance: to be generous but self-sufficient.
“They need to remember where they came from as Chuukese. As Chuukese we help each other out,” Sasuo said. “At the same time, they need to learn not to rely on others. ... Sometimes it’s good to be independent and all of that.”
For one thing, Sasuo said he wants his children — he has an 11-year-old daughter at Huntington Middle School and 9-year-old son in Catlin Elementary — to be diligent in school. It’s a large part of why he and his wife, Riwina, decided to move.
Some students have already been exposed to American culture, likely in Hawaii, before attending school in Cowlitz County. But many still struggle to adjust, said Don Iverson, assessment director at the Kelso School District.
“For other students, this is all new and it can be very often overwhelming,” Iverson wrote in an email. “Not only do these students face challenges in trying to adjust to the rules and expectations of the classroom, but they are fully aware of the differences in their skills and abilities (from) those of their peers. Initially these students often struggle to ‘fit in’ and develop a sense of belonging.”
Pacific Islander students have some of the highest absenteeism rates across the country, according to Associated Press data. Truancy can be difficult to track in schools with small numbers of Pacific Islander students. But public schools with larger minority populations have stark numbers: 2013-2014 AP data showed that 72 percent of Kent-Meridian High School’s 97 Pacific Islander students missed 15 or more days of school.
That’s one of the struggles of Sasuo’s morning work at Kelso schools — not just interpreting for students with language barriers but making them care about their education. It’s a good part of the culture – to have family together, Sasuo said, but a bad part to rely on.
“They want to go back home and just live with relatives, with family, and they don’t care if they have a job,” Sasuo said. “They really don’t think ahead. They don’t think about the future. They rely so much on the culture, knowing that somebody will take care of them.”
Returning to Chuuk
Riwina Sasuo still misses Chuuk and would like to go back eventually. She says their children miss the easy access to Hawaii’s beaches and swimming in the ocean.
For Gloria Nauru, it’s her homeland’s food she misses the most — primarily, fish fresh from the ocean. She has a number of traditional ways to make it: cooked in coconut milk; salted and grilled; stored for a few days, then slathered in soy sauce and lemon juice.
Saying goodbye to the island foods is a big challenge for many Chuukese. Diabetes disproportionately affects Pacific Islanders and Asians in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control. As the population grows larger, church officials said they hope to open a Chuukese market in the county to help them find the food they love as well as provide jobs for them.
Along with his work at Kelso schools, Anter Sasuo also works at Life Works helping those with developmental and intellectual disabilities in the afternoons. Many other Chuukese — like his brother-in-law Skinny Chengiuo — worked for Foster Farms when they first moved to the area. Sasuo said it’s a challenge for most Chuukese to make ends meet with low wages.
Ultimately, though, Sasuo said he’s comfortable with his family’s move. Sasuo attended high school in Chuuk and received a scholarship to go to Guam University. He said he wants his kids to have better educational opportunities than he did growing up.
“I think we made the right decision,” Sasuo said.
At the Christmas Day service at the Women’s Club, families gathered to watch a performance by their children, organized by their Sunday school teacher. Some were as young as 4, others were in middle school.
In a mix of English and Chuukese, the kids took turns with the microphone on stage, yelling their Christmas blessings over loud, karaoke-style keyboard music. With their leis, muumuus and Hawaiian shirts, they sang Chuukese church songs and clapped. The younger ones clapped off the beat.
Led by their Sunday school teacher, they left the stage for a traditional Chuukese chant and dance in the middle of the room, squatting to the floor and stomping down the center aisle as they pass their parents’ gaze.
Lauren Kronebusch contributed to this report.