By Jeffrey Osborn
Northwest Asian Weekly
In 2007, Jiji Jally spoke in front of thousands at a climate change rally in Seattle about her homeland in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, an area that was radically changing as a result of global warming. In 2008, the Marshallese government declared a state of emergency over the floods incurred upon the island by the rising sea level. The president of the Republic of Nauru expressed concern that these islands are severely endangered by the flooding caused by climate change. Many have since left the island nation to try and make a life in the United States.
Aside from the flooding, Marshallese citizens face additional challenges, including high unemployment and medical issues. Jally, who was born in the Marshall Islands and adopted by a Marshallese mother and an American father, acts translator for the local Marshallese.
“I started joining in with [Marshallese] community functions because of my culture. I interpret[ed] for people who needed help with some of these issues. I see when I’m interpreting, many people [who] are sick. An older couple died recently and it really touched me. I get affected by it,” said Jally.
The 2010 Census reported that the population of Marshallese citizens in the United States had increased three-fold since 2000. This development has kept Jally in the busy role of advocating for the Mashallese in Washington state.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the testing of nuclear weapons on the islands conducted by the U.S. military contaminated the land. In 1986, the United States entered into the Compact of Free Association with several Pacific Island nations, which granted the Republic of the Marshall Islands its sovereignty. This agreement grants the Marshall Islands aid and services like health care and military defense in exchange for U.S. military use of the Kwajalein Atoll testing range. A significant privilege that resulted from the agreement was the right granted to Marshallese citizens to live and work within the United States with only the use of a passport.
“Marshallese people are still coming here, the United States, to go to the doctors because they’re sick from cancer.” said Jally. “They tested 67 nuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands. The aftermath of that radiation has been countless people dying from radiation and deformed children being born.”
For many Marshallese, the ease of immigration makes moving to the United States appealing. This is a common route for the Marshallese people, with large Marshallese communities settling in different regions of the United States, including large populations in Spokane and Auburn. With the restrictions on federal aid, the Marshallese people have turned to state food assistance, a program that doesn’t follow federal policy and instead allows all people in Washington to receive aid.
According to DSHS, about 15,250 people statewide received food assistance benefit in April, including more than 1,300 residing in Spokane County. But the program has been under siege. In an attempt over the past several years to reduce the state budget, the Washington State Senate has attempted to cut the program.
On February 9, Jally joined members of the Mashallese community on a visit to Sen. Ed Murray’s office in Olympia for Have a Heart for Kids Day, an annual lobbying event hosted by Children’s Alliance, to share her community’s story and ask for protection of the State Food Assistance program.
Due to a change in federal law recently, only citizens of the United States, or green card holders, may receive food stamps and federal aid, thereby excluding those in the Marshallese community that greatly rely on those benefits. The change would also adversely affect applicants for asylum living in the United States and citizens of Haiti or Micronesia, who, like Marshallese citizens, are allowed to live and work in the States.
“It’s just making life much harder for the people who need it,” said Jally.
“Some families come with kids. They come to the United States and when they come from the islands, you see a difference. I don’t want to say they’re [malnourished], but you see a difference.”
Jally has worked closely with Children’s Alliance to advocate for the Marshallese in Washington. Jally has witnessed in the community families that struggle to live on minimum wage salaries, while trying to get medical care for themselves or sick family members.
Jally and the Children’s Alliance worked closely together to prevent state food assistance benefits from being reduced and saw the benefit amount remain constant as a result, despite attempts in the past to cut it. This year, their efforts were met with more challenges when the state legislature voted to lower the benefits for beneficiaries of the state food assistance program.
“The monthly amount is about $4 per person per day for food stamps and it used to be that same amount for the state food assistance program, but the legislature this year, starting on July 1, decided to reduce the monthly benefit amount for recipients of state food assistance to be half of the amount of food stamps,” said Jon Gould, deputy director of Children’s Alliance.
Cuts to the state food assistance would save the state $12.1 million for the 2013 fiscal year.
Just a month following the cuts, Jally has noticed the effects of these cuts on her community.
“I’ve noticed that they go to the food bank a lot. They need to go to get the extra stuff like vegetables, fruit, and yogurt. If [they] don’t go there, they just stick to buying only what they need.”
Recently, the Marshallese population in the United States has gained more attention in the media, including an article in the New York Times documenting the challenges faced by the Marshallese and Pacific Islanders in Arkansas. But whether the media is documenting the floods in the Marshall Islands that result from global warming, the illnesses they suffered from nuclear testing, or the lack of food assistance for the Marshallese here in the States, for Jally, the fight is all the same, and the issues are all connected.
“Some of these issues that come up are all attached to each other. The lack of medical and food [assistance], the testing they’re doing on the island, and these people who come to live here. All of these are connected somehow,” said Jally.
“I saw what was going on and thought, ‘Okay, I need to be more involved with my people.’ … You can’t say that just because I live in America now that it’s not about me. … It’s like a lost community of people who are trying to figure out how to live.”
Jally was awarded the Brewster Denny Rising Star Advocate Award from Children’s Alliance for her efforts to save state food assistance from being removed from Washington’s programs.
“The budget cuts the state has made have been particularly hard for communities of color in Washington state and the work that Jiji has done has been vital to educating lawmakers and really, educating others in Washington about the wonderful diversity that we have in Washington state,” said Gould.
With the challenges facing the islands and its citizens in the States, Jally continues to fight for the benefits of the Marshallese community working to build a new home and a new life in the United States. She recently joined a group of Marshallese people in the making of a video documentary with hopes that it will give voice to a group that is affected by so many issues. (end)
Jeffrey Osborn can be reached at email@example.com.