Forced out of their homes by years of U.S. nuclear testing, the Marshallese diaspora has spread to Springdale, Ark.

From 1946 to 1958, the U.S. conducted nuclear weapons tests in the central Pacific. The effects of those tests created unspeakable damage to both the islands and their inhabitants. This Washington Post article from 2019 gives a vivid glimpse into the horror that the people living on the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands have had to endure. It recounts one horrific instance in which, in 1954, the U.S. government exploded its first weaponized hydrogen bomb, which was 1,000 times as powerful as the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima.

As the article says, “Within hours, the atoll was covered with a fine, white, powder-like substance,” the Marshall Islands health minister would later testify, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation. “No one knew it was radioactive fallout. The children played in the ‘snow.’ They ate it.” To this day, the damage from all of the tests the U.S. conducted remains.

For the past four years, photographer Lawrence Sumulong has been documenting the story of the Marshallese diaspora. He has specifically focused on the history of the Bikinians, a community of about 5,000 Pacific Islanders from the Bikini Atoll.

Sumulong told In Sight: “The Bikinians have lived in exile on the islands of Kili and Ejit in the Marshall Islands for 70 years. Currently, there are only a few remaining Bikinians out of the original 167 who were asked to leave their homeland in 1946 by the U.S. military.”

Sumulong’s project, a selection of which we are presenting here on In Sight, documents the story of the Marshallese diaspora that has spread from the Pacific islands to Springdale, Ark. According to Sumulong, this Marshallese community in Arkansas is the largest in the United States.

Here’s more about the project from Sumulong himself:

“The relatively recent emigration to the United States entails yet another significant move away from their ancestral homeland. Their migration was motivated by the ability to live, work and study in the United States according to the Compact of Free Association. However, as a new immigrant and historically exploited community, the Marshallese American livelihood remains entwined with blue-collar work in the poultry industry of Northwest Arkansas.

“Pre- and post covid-19 pandemic, the struggles and daily lives of both the Bikinian and general Marshallese population offer a complicated look into what it means to be a part of American society. Beyond the typical photojournalistic mode of doomsaying, the honest and enduring question for me is, ‘What does it look like to succeed in America when you’re Bikinian or Marshallese?’

“This decision to both pursue and publish this particular work on the Marshallese arrives at a time when their community urgently needs national attention in the deadly aftermath of the pandemic. It also coincides with a personal choice in seeing the merits of looking at an adjacent and related ethnic experience to foster empathy and understand who we are as Americans in this new administration and era.”

Sumulong’s photos take us into the daily lives of these Marshallese people living in Arkansas. He takes us into their churches and homes, creating a portrait of a people living their lives despite the horrific conditions they’ve had to endure for years.

Sumulong decided to print the images he made on banana fiber paper in an effort to create a visual connection to his own heritage as a photographer from the Philippines with that of the Marshallese people, as the banana crop is “endemic to both the Marshall Islands and the Philippines.”

You can see more of Sumulong’s work on his website, here.

As described to Sumulong by KBE translator and official, Lumon Benjamin and Executive Councilman Nixon Jibas:

“Jimta has been working with the chicken factory (Randall Road) for almost 20 years now. There are also many other Marshallese working in this chicken plant. In fact, this chicken plant has the most Marshallese people working in it here in Springdale, Ark.

"He remembered back then when there were only a few Marshallese people working in the company. They had to work many hours. The paychecks were good and the company’s insurance was good for their family members. Also, there were not so many rules and regulations for the workers to abide by. Their supervisors were very kind and understanding whenever they had family emergencies and other family matters to attend. Everyone felt like they are a part of a big happy family.

"Back home, we don’t have many jobs to accommodate the growing population of people in the Marshall Islands, so these people moved over here.

"Jimta has a few more years and then he will retire. He is planning to go back home and live there. His children will stay here and work and also take care of their kids while they’re attending the schools here. Education was also the other reason that Marshallese people came to the United States. They want their kids to attend these good schools so they will be able to have good jobs when they graduate.

"He said living in the United States is good because there are many good opportunities for us Marshallese people. Whereas back home, we don’t have these opportunities. There are also many things that we want to have here in the United States but can’t have like our local foods, our own land, the ocean that we grew up in, which we use as our main source of life. He said that he is glad that his kids are here in the United States so that they can have a better future.” (Lawrence Sumulong)

As described to Sumulong by Mira’s son, Lumon Benjamin:

“My mother, Mira Joshaia Benjamin, was born on March 4, 1929, on Bikini Atoll. She is now 87 years old. She is one of the few survivors from the 167 that were evacuated in 1946 that are still living today. She was a teenager at that time when the U.S. government asked them to move out of their home island (Bikini) so they can test their nuclear bombs for the good of mankind. They didn’t have any choice, but took everything that they were able to take with them and left.

"They were relocated to a nearby island (Rongerik) which is about a couple of miles away from their home island (Bikini). After three months of isolation, starvation and not knowing what the U.S. government was doing to their home island (Bikini), they were relocated again to Kwajalein, the U.S. military base in the Marshall Islands. Again, they lived on Kwajalein for a couple of months and then were relocated again to Kili Island, where they are still living on it today. She has lived and seen it all.

"My mother moved here to Springdale, Ark., at the end of the 1990s. She came to live with my sisters that came to Springdale, Ark., years before. She came to the United States to find medical opportunities and a better life. Yes, she was able to find these opportunities but they come at a big price. She is an old lady that cannot work, doesn’t have any medical insurance and other kinds of programs that might help her at her age. Everything for her here in the United States is kind of expensive because she doesn’t work and she does not qualify for the programs that help people here in the United States.

"She is living in a rented apartment with my older sister. Housing is very expensive and they cannot afford one. Back in the Marshall Islands, she has her own house. Also, she has her own lands and she doesn’t owe anybody for her lands. The lands were given to her from her ancestors. Everything here in the United States costs money and if you don’t have any money, you won’t get anything. Back home in the Marshall Islands, not everything costs money. People have their own lands and their own crops. People don’t have to have these fancy things to live. Life is very simple and that is the kind of life my mother is used to.

“My mother wants to go back home (to Bikini) but cannot because it is still contaminated with radiation and people cannot live on the islands. She said that the U.S. government promised them that they will return them to their home island (Bikini) but still haven’t fulfilled their promise. Sometimes she wonders if she is ever going to go back home. Many of her family members have already died, most of them from cancer and other kinds of related illnesses from the nuclear testing on Bikini.

"The U.S. government doesn’t want to help them anymore with their medical issues and also the Marshall Island government doesn’t have any money to compensate the nuclear victims. It seems that nobody cares about what had happened many, many years ago for the Bikinian people’s sacrifice ‘for the good of mankind.’ People of Bikini have a motto which is said “MORIBA” and means, ‘Everything is in God’s hands.’ ”

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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