A ray of hope in Springdale

Freedom: On their own, Marshallese migrate to Arkansas to process poultry, play ball - maybe even buy a house.

September 17, 2002|By Walter F. Roche Jr. and Willoughby Mariano | Walter F. Roche Jr. and Willoughby Mariano,SUN STAFF AND ORLANDO SENTINEL

SPRINGDALE, Ark. - For nearly two decades, John Moody made his living killing, gutting and packing poultry on the line at Tyson Foods, the nation's largest meat producer and processor.

It was unpleasant work - smelly, repetitive and dangerous. He severed the tip of his index finger on a factory saw.

Moody was paid $3.25 an hour when he started there in the early 1980s, and made $7.99 when he left in 1995.

But for someone who grew up in the poverty-ridden Marshall Islands, coming to America and working in even a menial job opened "a door of opportunity," he said.

And Tyson, looking for workers to perform tasks that many Americans avoid, had plenty of jobs. That was the message that Moody spread "every time I went back home."

Today, as many as 4,000 Marshallese have followed Moody's path and live in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. It is a classic story of immigration and assimilation American-style - newcomers voluntarily starting on the bottom rung of society in hopes of forging a better life.

The Pacific islanders who have settled in Springdale have paid their own way or borrowed from relatives, unlike thousands of Marshallese brought to the United States as indentured laborers at nursing homes and amusement parks by "body brokers." Because they came on their own, they are free to accept a less-taxing or better-paying job, as Moody eventually did, free to quit and go home, free simply to leave.

They have their own churches and clubs, and sufficient numbers that schools and local government must address their needs - for some still live below the poverty line and few go to college.

Marshallese imported by brokers often end up stranded, isolated and hungry, and nearly 8,000 miles from home.

Unlike the brokers, who collect fees of up to $5,500 for each worker they deliver, Moody offered temporary refuge to fellow islanders who slept on his floor or couch - wherever they could find open space.

"I never charged them a penny," said Moody, 49, a stocky, easy-going man with thick wrists, graying hair and a deep voice.

"It's really sad if someone's making money off of them," he said as he reclined in an antique rocking chair, wearing a brightly colored shirt adorned with palm trees. "That's sad, it's really sad. If I had done that, I'd be a millionaire."

Of the more than two dozen Marshallese interviewed here, all said they had arrived in Springdale independently, without the help of third-party recruiters and brokers.

`A good place to live'

On a weedy patch of grass, players gathering for an all-Marshallese softball game outline the batter's box with flour. Children linger at the rusting chain-link fence behind home plate; others hover nearby to chase balls that go into the street. Their mothers chatter in minivans with dashboards adorned with seashells and cloth flowers, while young men puff on cigarettes at the far end of the field.

Among these 100 or so players and spectators are modest signs of Marshallese success. At third base is Anbili Aikuj, 26, who in the Marshall Islands could find only odd jobs. Now he works the night shift at Tyson's Cornish hen plant, hanging live birds, and is soon to become a supervisor.

Aikuj's Ebon Atoll team competes against Brothers All, organized by the Marshallese Full Gospel Church, one of eight churches locally with Marshallese congregations. The church raised money to buy its own building and recently opened a second branch in a strip mall across town.

Behind home plate stands umpire Ned Laibwij, decked out in a floppy straw hat with a bright-red hatband and a tank top bearing a giant image of the American flag.

His $47,000, two-bedroom home on Kansas Street is widely known as the first to be bought by a Marshallese in Springdale.

"I didn't know nothing about buying a house," he said. But he had a job at Tyson and a steady income. He got the mortgage and the sale went through.

Now, 20 or 30 Marshallese are homeowners, he said.

"Northwest Arkansas is a good place to live," Laibwij said.

In terms of income, it clearly is a better place to make a living than the Marshall Islands. According to a survey conducted in late 2001 by the Embassy of the Republic of the Marshall Islands in Washington, the per capita income of Marshallese in Arkansas is $6,691, four times the island figure of $1,670, though well below the U.S. average of $24,352.

Among Marshallese of working age, only 7 percent are unemployed in Springdale, the survey found. By comparison, in 1998, unemployment was 31 percent at home and 24 percent among Marshallese who emigrated to Guam, Hawaii and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Last year, eight people made up the average Marshallese household in Northwest Arkansas, 77 percent had telephones, 90 percent owned cars and almost all had air conditioning - relative luxuries for Marshallese elsewhere.

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