TERRITORY CLOSED. This undated photo, provided by Epifania
Rapozo, center, shows her with her two children — Mila, left,
and Levi, right — on a hillside overlooking a scenic site on
American Samoa’s main island of Tutuila. Rapozo, a native of
American Samoa, and her children, from Washington state, have
been stranded in American Samoa since Hawaiian Airlines flights
were suspended in late March. She and the children visited Pago
Pago in February. (Epifania Rapozo via AP)
From The Asian Reporter, V30, #12 (November 2, 2020),
Pandemic leaves American Samoa residents
By Fili Sagapolutele and Jennifer Sinco Kelleher
The Associated Press
PAGO PAGO, American Samoa — Makerita Iosefo Va’a 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 re-create 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.
Va’a 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 governor 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 Va’as 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 Hawai‘i 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
Va’a 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 six-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
Hawai‘i, 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 Va’as 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 Va’a is a manager at American Samoa’s Medicaid office and
her husband, Shaun Va’a, 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
Ilalio Polevia and his 16-year-old daughter, Rita, were
essentially homeless in Honolulu, when a group that helps
Hawai‘i 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 was cancelled.
"I’m surprised there’s people here in Hawai‘i 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
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.
Kelleher reported from Honolulu.