As told by Mary Ellen Caldwell
In 1997, when I was l7 years old and a junior in high school, my parents decided to take early retirement and to come to the United States. They were eager that I receive a good education. My brother was already in the United States with his wife and two sons. We left Majuro Island, one of the many Marshall Islands. On the way, we stopped in Honolulu for a couple of days and then went on to Oklahoma where we stayed until 2003.
During this time, my father became ill so we returned to the Marshall Islands where he died. I was sad to leave home, my friends, my extended family. I missed so many aspects of my life there: the food (more seafood and rice), the white sandy beaches where I could swim during the perpetual summer and go on frequent fishing trips with my Dad. We would catch tuna and marlin. We arrived in Dubuque in February so I felt the cold acutely; it would take a while for me to become accustomed to winter!
I finished high school in Oklahoma; I found the curriculum more extensive and had to study harder. After high school, I took a course at a technical school to prepare me to take care of disabled children; then I worked at a government facility for disabled children. I didn’t like Oklahoma; in 2004, we moved to Dubuque. Our cousins had moved here earlier. I like Dubuque and like to work here, people are friendly. The large Marshallese community in Dubuque helps me to feel at home. We live close to one another and have our own churches— Assembly of God, New Hope Church, and Full Gospel Church. I belong to the Assembly of God, Danella’s brother is the pastor. We celebrate Christmas just as you do. We also have a special feast. Constitution Day is celebrated on May 31. We sing, dance and share our handcrafts. A few years ago, we enjoyed bringing our community to share our music with the sisters here at Mount Carmel.
We keep in touch with our family in the Marshall Islands every day through Facebook, and about once a month using Skype. We don’t have to bother with a telephone, the computer takes care of our communication needs. We speak Marshallese in our own local community.
A sad even occurred in our family recently, my brother Danny, 44 years old, died on February 8 after suffering from liver disease for about two years. Danella, another friend and I drove to Enid, Oklahoma for his funeral. He leaves his wife, three sons and two daughters Rick, Eric, Dan, Karbania and Dancy. Dancy, the youngest daughter, is a junior in high school. The eldest son, Rick, is planning to be married. The grieving family will be able to celebrate a joyful occasion.
Dubuque has been welcoming, people have helped us in many ways. Nevertheless, I wish I could have stayed in the Marshall Islands. It is home and I have more family there. Sometimes I am homesick.
This story originally appeared in Facing Diversity: Marshallese Stories, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by the Inclusive Dubuque Network in Dubuque, Iowa.