DUBUQUE, IA – Irene Ernest gently smiles and looks me in the eye as we talk.
“There’s a lot of…barriers that we know,” she explains.
It might be a simple practice many Americans take for granted, but for the native of the Marshall Islands, looking someone in the eye was a practice she had to learn.
Ernest is a member of one of Dubuque’s most unknown communities: the Marshallese.
“It’s different here. Like, culture is one of the barriers.”
Moving to the United States almost 10 years ago, she knows the struggles a major life change can bring. As a health care worker by title, she sees it every day.
But Ernest is so much more than just a health care worker.
“She’s our key into the [Marshallese] culture,” says Suzie Stroud, a social worker for Crescent Community Health Center.
Stroud works closely with Ernest to ensure the well-being of the Marshallese population in Dubuque.
According to Stroud, an estimated 700 Marshallese currently live in Dubuque. That’s over 1% of the entire Marshall Island population.
She found a major appreciation for the community in town just a few years ago.
“I discovered the Marshallese were living in Dubuque, which was profoundly disappointing to me because I was born and raised here,” says Stroud. “I felt like I needed to know more.”
Stroud studied the Marshallese population in Dubuque for close to a year to learn their history and their stories.
“They’re so welcoming, they’re so friendly,” she says.
She compiled what she learned into a book titled, “Facing Diversity: Marshallese Stories.”
As the book explains, in the 1940s and ’50s, the United States used the Marshall Islands, located roughly halfway between Hawaii and the Phillipines, as testing grounds for nuclear weapons. The radiation from the explosions caused substantial health defects within the Marshallese population.
As a result, the United States entered into a Compact of Free Association (COFA) with the Marshall Islands, allowing the Marshallese to live and work in the United States.
Additionally, the natives of the Marshall Islands are facing the direct consequences of climate change in their homelands. As ocean levels rise, their islands are becoming increasingly smaller, which is drastically affecting the Marshallese way of life.
“I don’t know if we can go back to the Marshall Islands,” says Ernest. “There’s nothing there back home. There’s nothing.”
Combine these major factors with a number of other minor reasons, and it becomes evident why the Marshallese migration to the United States has continued to grow in recent years.
Dubuque in particular is home to a substantial Marshallese population for two prominent reasons: the access to health care and the existing legacy of Marshall Island natives.
“It’s more about community than the individual, and they really live by that,” explains Stroud.
Now, Ernest dedicates herself to improving the well-being of the Marshallese people. It’s a critically important job, especially for a culture that holds some of the highest rates of diabetes and cancer diagnoses.
She also knows all the difficulties that come with adapting to life in America.
“We’re still struggling because we’re not citizens,” she says.
Under the restrictions of the COFA, the Marshallese can live and work stateside but have no access to Medicaid, food stamps, or other government programs.
“We’re working with all the leaders here in Dubuque [to improve our living conditions],” she says.
While there’s still work to be done, Ernest knows the benefits the city brings her people.
“We’re in Dubuque, we’re in good hands, we love the neighborhood…people know where to go if they’re sick…we can find jobs. There’s lots of opportunity.”
And Stroud knows progress will continue for the Marshallese too.
“…People are understanding, and I think the more that happens, the more access they’re going to have to resources, barriers are going to be broken down, and that can only lead to good things for our community.”
Stroud is currently working on another book for the Facing Diversity Project regarding the LGBTQ+ community in Dubuque. You can read the book mentioned in the article, “Facing Diversity: Marshallese Stories”, for free here.
Ben Friedman is an anchor and co-executive producer for LCTV News. He is a junior at Loras College from Ankeny, Iowa. Ben enjoys LCTV because it gives him an opportunity to combine creativity and storytelling in a way that helps him provide value to the tri-state community.