Marshallese Education Day (May 11th 2013).

By: Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

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This Saturday, May 11th, Marshallese students, parents, teachers and service providers in Honolulu are invited to attend the 6th annual Marshallese Education Day at the New Hope Leeward Church in Waipahu. The yearly event, which began in 2008, recognizes Marshallese honor students, encourages parents to become more involved in education, and challenges students to aim for college.

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics collected in 2010, as many as 6,316 Marshallese are registered as living in Hawai‘i. And yet within the crowded, busy city of Honolulu, few opportunities arise for our Marshallese community to come together and celebrate our common goals and culture. The Marshallese Education Day is one of those few opportunities.

“It’s important that we continue this event because it lets our students know that we support them,” says Gloria Lani, Chairperson to the Marshallese Education Day Committee. “It’s important our students know that they’re not alone, and that there’s others who’ve faced the same challenges they’ve faced.”

Marshallese families have been attempting to deal with a unique set of challenges since we first began migrating to Hawai‘i. Linguistic and cultural barriers continues to be the most pressing issues with students and parents alike struggling to adapt to Hawai‘i’s educational system. This system tends to be unacquainted with Marshallese culture and history, and unaware of factors affecting student success such as obligations and duties to family, parents struggling with finances and limited time to devote to their children due to long hours at low-income jobs, and racial tensions within the local community.

Litha Joel Jorju addresses these racial tensions in her article for Honolulu Civil Beat entitled “For Marshallese, Hawaii Is the Only Home We Have Left.” http://www.civilbeat.com/voices/2013/05/01/18955-for-marshallese-hawaii-is-the-only-home-we-have-left/

“Those of us from Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau know that we are not yet accepted in Hawaii. We know that some people don’t like our traditional dresses and skirts, call us all “Micros” and think that we don’t know how to fit in,” writes Jorju. “We are trying. We are trying hard to get an education for our kids, get medical care for our elders, and jobs that will allow us to be self-sufficient.”

In this article, Jorju addresses what many Marshallese families struggle with – the legacy of nuclear testing on our islands which leaves many of us without a home, with medical and health care issues and which forces us to migrate, as well as the tensions which often occur due to misunderstandings and racism.

Recent events, such as the school-wide lockdown at Kealakehe High School on Big Island, are a testament to these tensions. On December 7th, 2012, school officials at Kealakehe stated that bullying, racism and multiple fights culminated in a brawl involving Marshallese and Micronesian students. This brawl resulted in eight arrests and school closure that garnered local and national media attention. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/08/kealakehe-high-school-in-_n_2263803.html

Negative media attention and ongoing tensions make community events such as Marshallese Education Day all the more necessary. Lani, who’s worked for many years at the Honolulu District Office, recognized these struggles early on from her active work in the community. She was one of the founding members of Marshallese Education Day. “We came together and talked about all these problems – the number of dropouts, the families losing their children to the prison system, the discrimination, and we thought what do we do? What can we do? And this is what we came up with.”

Last year’s event awarded over fifty-five students from grades six through twelve for their hard work and commitment to education. High school senior Kalko Lojkar encouraged fellow students to continue to strive to do their best and overcome the obstacles our community faces. Lerooj Lieom Anono Loeak spoke about the importance of manit (culture) and how our manit can serve as a beacon for success.

This Saturday, Marshallese families will come together once again to honor and appreciate the many success stories of our Marshallese students, success stories which are the result of one of our most important Marshallese cultural values – supporting one another as a family and as a community.

Sponsor for this event include the Republic of the Marshall Islands Government, New Hope Leeward, the Marshallese Education Day Committee, Wakiki Marshallese Assembly of God, and the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa College Access Challenge Grant.