Portland Tribune: Islanders find refuge but no paradise
Author: Jan Johnson
Posted: October 22, 2014

Read the original story in the Portland Tribune here

Virginia Ngilmau Pedro Rivard Luka was born and raised in Micronesia, a region of thousands of Pacific islands, many threatened by inundation from rising ocean levels caused by climate change. 

In Luka’s childhood, schools sometimes held classes in shipping containers, and books washed away in floods

She relocated to Guam, which isn’t as vulnerable to climate change as many Pacific islands, but a devastating typhoon prompted Luka, her husband and baby to move to Oregon in 2003.

Kianna Angelo was born on the Marshall Islands, which lie inches above sea level, making drinking water, crops and homes at risk. The United States tested nuclear weapons in that part of Micronesia from 1946 to 1958, and in 1956 the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission called the Marshall Islands “by far, the most contaminated place in the world.”

Angelo now lives in Lake Oswego and serves as executive director of Living Islands, a nonprofit dedicated to improving life in her homeland.

Driven here by cataclysmic weather, rising sea levels or because nuclear testing made their homes uninhabitable, Pacific Islanders have found refuge in Oregon.

But it’s no paradise, says the Rev. Joseph Santos-Lyons, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, or APANO. In Portland, Pacific Islanders remain among the poorest residents, living in some of the most polluted parts of town, including the pan-Asian Jade District around Southeast 82nd Avenue.


Unequal agreements


Between 1986 and 1994, the U.S. signed agreements giving it greater control and access to more than a million square miles of the Pacific, allowing for additional military and weapons testing. The agreements were supposed to allow Pacific Islanders to go to and from the United States for school and work.

But depending on the island and the agreement signed with the U.S., Pacific Islanders may or may not have access to Medicaid and other benefits enjoyed by other legal residents here. In the 2013 session of the Oregon Legislature, Pacific Islanders finally were able to get drivers’ licenses in Oregon for more than a year at a time. “We used to have to go in every year and take the full tests and pay all the fees,” says Luka, now a Portland State University graduate student, peer mentor, and research assistant.

Not being eligible for Medicaid is a particular hardship. “Sixty percent of Pacific Islanders in Oregon live under the poverty line,” Santos-Lyons says. “That’s the highest of any ethnic group in the state.”


Pollution in the Jade


Further, he says air-quality studies show hot spots of air toxins in places with Portland’s greatest concentration of Asian residents — and the only census tract in the city with a majority of residents of color. That tract includes Portland’s traffic-congested Jade District, encompassing neighborhoods between Southeast 80th and 93rd avenues, from Powell Boulevard north to Harrison Street.  

“They have the highest exposure to air toxins proportionate to the population,” Santos-Lyons says.

“People think of Oregon as having great air quality, but these studies show there are areas with air toxins at levels that warrant our concern,” he says.

“Oregonians have a value around being fair, having an aspiration around the good life for everybody. The challenge is those benefits haven’t gone to everybody equally.”

Just as in the Pacific Islands from where they came, there is concern that environmental pollution here can be directly linked to health issues.

Studies have shown direct relationships between exposure to toxins and increased asthma and cancer rates, Santos-Lyons notes.

And, increasingly, researchers are tying environmental pollutants and other stresses to health problems that afflict multiple generations.


Race and health equity


“It’s really about what was going on with your mom when she was pregnant with you — and your mom’s mom,” says Tricia Tillman, of the Oregon Health Authority Office of Equity and Inclusion. “Oregon Health & Science University research shows stresses in the womb impact health even two generations later.”

Maternal exposure to common stresses such as poor housing and joblessness — to say nothing of unique stresses like radiation poisoning or being a climate change refugee — can result in heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes and other illnesses later in the child’s life, Tillman says.

She is focused on leveling the field, especially for groups like Pacific Islanders that have the longest way to go in terms of social determinants of health.


Turning to transit


APANO, a statewide group of Asians and Pacific Islanders working for social justice on many fronts, is seeking to connect the dots between environmental and health issues. One way it hopes to address health concerns associated with air pollution and congestion is through public transit.

At a recent APANO forum in Portland, the group heard about a campaign in Los Angeles that pushed for better mass transit. The Bus Riders Union, in a trilingual campaign using English, Spanish and Korean messaging, made demands that captured the imagination with L.A.’s Billions for Buses crusade. Its 1996 lawsuit and campaign eventually won a $2.7 billion commitment to add 1,000 buses and replace diesel buses with cleaner-burning natural gas. 

“We asked for billions for buses, and we got it,” Tammy Bang Luu, of L.A.’s Labor/Community Strategy Center, told the APANO audience.

“Micronesia is vanishing, and we’re the world’s largest historical emitter” of carbon emissions, Bang Luu said. “How are we tying public health and climate?” Bung Lun asked her Portland audience. “Imagine something big.”