(Pictures by Steve Hebert)
Since the mid-1980’s a large group of people have been migrating to Springdale, Arkansas from an unexpected place: The Marshall Islands. Located near the equator in the Pacific Ocean and spread out across 29 atolls and 5 islands, the Marshalls have an estimated population of 53,158 people. Although rich in culture and traditions, the ravages of climate change along with high levels of poverty, alcoholism, and preventable diseases have many Marshallese seeking better opportunities outside their island home.
Springdale is currently home to 4000 islanders, the largest population of Marshallese within the continental United States, surpassed only by the 7000 or so islanders now living in Hawaii. Two factors have encouraged significant numbers of Marshallese to seek a better life in Arkansas: The Compact of Free Association and Tyson Foods.
Ratified by the United States, the Marshalls and other pacific island chains in the 1980’s, the Compact of Free Association extends existing territorial agreements with smaller pacific nations and renews military protection for the countries under the Compact. It also allows resident eligibility for some federal aid programs and gives Marshallese the right to travel and work in the United States with only a passport.
Around 1986 a resident from the Marshall Islands moved to Springdale from Oklahoma to work at a Tyson Foods plant. He realized the company was expanding and sent word to his friends and family. These new arrivals found better, if vastly different, living conditions and spread the word, initiating two decades of Marshallese immigration to Northwest Arkansas. Most new arrivals found work at Tyson Foods or in other jobs that required little knowledge of English.
Various articles and reports indicate that the Marshallese population in Springdale is adapting to life in the United States. Marshallese children have become a fixture in Springdale public schools and teachers and staff work hard to meet their needs and encouraged Marshallese students to share their culture with other students. Many Marshallese finish high school and go on to find job opportunities unavailable to the first generation of arrivals. Currently few Marshallese enter higher education, but as the population grows more accustomed to the region, this should change.
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