American Samoa's stranded residents gaining national attention
PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (AP) — Makerita Iosefo Vaʻa hasn't been home for nearly eight months — the longest she's ever been away from American Samoa.
She longs for the breezes that cool island humidity and the ocean sounds and smells that permeate her home in the village of Tula. She also misses the food that's impossible to recreate in Tracy, California, where the coronavirus pandemic has left her and her husband stranded.
“Every time I talk about it, I just cry,” she said.
Vaʻa left the U.S. territory in the Pacific in February with her husband for medical treatment. They planned to fly home in March from San Francisco but decided to postpone after hearing a security worker at the airport had contracted the virus.
Since then, they haven't been able to leave because American Samoa Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga closed the territory on March 13 to protect those on the islands from COVID-19 — and it hasn't reported any cases.
In July, after the order was extended, the Vaʻas stopped bothering to make travel plans and are awaiting word from government officials about when they can come home.
“The interests of the 60,000 residents on-island and protecting their lives outweighs the interest of the 600 or more residents stranded in the United States,” said Iulogologo Joseph Pereira, chairman of the territorial government COVID-19 task force. “As the governor has continuously pointed out, more healthcare facilities are available in Hawaii and mainland states that they can access if they contract the virus.”
Some people from American Samoa were stranded in the midst of family visits or business travel. A Facebook page started by Vaʻa and others to share information has turned into a support system for those who long to go back to American Samoa, said Kueni Aumoeualogo-Hisatake. She went to Honolulu with her husband for their bi-annual medical checkups on the last flight out of the territory on March 26 — not anticipating they would not be able to return.
Aumoeualogo-Hisatake said the situation makes her “feel abandoned and neglected."
Other people can't leave American Samoa.
Epifania Rapozo lives in Washington state and returned to the territory in February for the first time in 20 years to visit her ailing grandfather, who later died. Unable to return to the U.S., Rapozo's 10-year-old daughter has been taking online classes and her 6-year-old son is enrolled in a local school.
“I am grateful that we are COVID-free but also quite disappointed on how the government is handling the issue,” Rapozo said. “There is absolutely no excuse as to why there hasn’t been any action implemented to repatriate not only us U.S. citizens but our own people.”
Moliga is reviewing a petition by stranded residents demanding repatriation. But amid a spike in coronavirus cases in Hawaii, he has asked Hawaiian Airlines — the only carrier with regularly scheduled service between Honolulu and Pago Pago — to suspend flights through November.
The territory is controlling its ports by quarantining crew members on boats, and essential workers arriving from the U.S. are tested for the virus.
Officials did arrange a free charter flight in July to take 150 Medicaid patients and support staff to the United States for medical treatment. There were enough extra seats to accommodate 45 students heading to the U.S. for college and 79 people who had been stranded on the island since March.
The nonmedical passengers paid $884 for their one-way ticket, a price that prevented Rapozo from taking the flight. There were no passengers on the charter’s return flight to Pago Pago.
“In the beginning, everybody was happy that our government closed the borders, you know, for safety," Aumoeualogo-Hisatake said. “But now, as time has accumulated, there’s more understanding about the virus and the preventive measures and all that stuff and how to deal with it.”
She and others say they don't want American Samoa to open its borders, just bring them home safely.
As they wait, the Vaʻas are living with relatives but fear they have overstayed their welcome and are making plans to move in with other family in Seattle.
They consider themselves lucky among the stranded. Makerita Iosefo Vaʻa is a manager at American Samoa's Medicaid office and her husband Shaun Vaʻa is a member of the territory's House of Representatives. While away, they're able to work remotely without losing income and they have rented a car so they can get out of their family's hair once in awhile.
“We have each other. We don’t have children," she said. “There are people I know who have lost their jobs.”
“It's nice here, but home is home,” she added, pointing out that California, with its dry heat and isolation is much different than American Samoa. “Here, we don't really know people, versus back home you have a village. ... We have family here, but with COVID, you can't really go visit them.”
Back home, not everyone wears a mask and social distancing is still catching on, especially in tight-knit Samoan cultures. Many people wonder what will happen when American Samoa opens its borders.
Ilalio Polevia and his 16-year-old daughter, Rita, were essentially homeless in Honolulu, when a group that helps Hawaii visitors put them up in a hotel. They had left American Samoa in November so she could go to high school in Washington state. He stayed and got a job at a bagged salad company.
When the pandemic was declared in March, they decided it was time to go home and left Tacoma for Honolulu, but their flight to Pago Pago had been canceled.
“I'm surprised there's people here in Hawaii that care about us,” Polevia said.
After the father and daughter stayed at three different hotels, the visitors group connected them with a Samoan church and they have been living at the reverend's house for the past month.
Rita enrolled at Waipahu High School and is taking classes online. They are living off church donations and hope they can be home by Christmas.