Cultural bonds, generous strangers sustain stranded residents in U.S.
Provo, UTAH — Lorimay Fuimaono-Ki will not always have complicated feelings about Jan. 7.
But in 2021, it was a day of intense gratitude and searing pain.
The young mother cannot stop the tears as she tries to explain what life has been like since American Samoa closed its borders to keep COVID-19 from ravaging territory.
The decision — which was the same one island leaders made during the 1918 Influenza outbreak — kept the country coronavirus-free, but it’s cost people like Fuimaono-Ki in many ways, including precious time with relatives making due without them in their island home.
“Every day is a struggling day to know what’s going to happen with everybody dying left to right,” Fuimaono-Ki said. “I don’t want to be that child to be away from (my dad) and not be there for him in these kind of times.”
A sob forces her to stop and take a deep breath before she can continue.
“The real reason,” she said, tears streaming down her face, “is it was supposed to be him to come out (to the U.S.) to do his medical stuff. But due to the hospital finance and everything, they could only choose one to go, and my dad chose me to come and have my babies. ... I think that’s what really gets me at times is that every day I hear from him, I know he’s trying to be strong for us.”
Just a few weeks ago, the newly elected governor promised to begin the repatriation process in February. But it is cumbersome and complicated, and it will likely take months for all residents to be able to return home. Residents will be asked to fly to Hawaii, where they will quarantine from between 10 and 14 days before being allowed to fly home. They will have to quarantine a similar length of time once they arrive in American Samoa, and among the challenges is finding places big enough to house those needing to quarantine if they come back as a group.
“Oh, I am more than excited,” said Fuimaono-Ki, admitting that even waiting another month feels difficult. “But I guess it’s going to take a while.”
The separation from their lives in American Samoa has been so painful that they formed Tagata Tutu Faatasi a Amerika Samoa, or TTFAAS. Loosely translated it means American Samoa stranded residents standing together, and it was an effort spearheaded by Aioevaga Tuna.
“This alliance started off with just conversations between people that were stranded here, and you know, it grew,” said Tuna. “We have stranded residents all across the states. We’ve been able to help each other, especially toward the end of last year, toward the holidays, like finding places for people to live, food and basic necessities, whatever they need.
“The government did the shutdown in March to stop any COVID from coming in,” said Kenneth Kuaea, who is living with his sister in Provo after becoming stranded this summer. “But some people needed to get off the island as the months rolled on for medical reasons, and so the government chartered a Medicaid flight, and I came out on one of those.”
Kuaea said many of the stranded American Samoan citizens feel somewhat forgotten by their government, which made the alliance critical to their survival.
“It’s been a huge burden financially, a huge toll psychologically and emotionally.”