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Over 200 Marshallese Stranded in Hawai?i Since March

Kelly Bokin
Marshallese Community Organization of Hawa'i
Hawai'i's Marshallese community is rallying to help hundreds of citizens stranded because of COVID-19 border closures issued in early March.

The Marshall Islands is among only a few countries left in the world that are COVID-19 free. This is due in part to a strict travel ban that has left more than 200 Marshallese citizens stranded since March here in Hawai?i. 

Pearl City resident Kelly Bokin spent the last three months securing food donations and financial assistance for hundreds of stranded Marshallese citizens. Back in March, the Republic of the Marshall Islands closed its borders to travelers – including citizens who were on their way home.

Credit Kelly Bokin / Marshallese Community Organization of Hawaii
Marshallese Community Organization of Hawaii
Kelly Bokin, a member of the Marshallese Community Organization of Hawai'i, helped raise funds for Marshallese citizen stranded in Hawai'i because of COVID-19 border closures that began in March. Bokin poses here with one of the stranded citizens who received money to help buy necessities.

“Well, it was kind of shocking news,” says Bokin. “We thought it was going to be shorter than expected. But as of now, it has been extended to July 5. And we?re not sure how long more it?s going to take.”

The Majuro native helped found the Marshallese Community Organization of Hawai?i. The group organized food drives and started a GoFundMe page for the stranded Marshallese.

“We were able to give them some cash. It was not much, but we believe it was enough for them to buy toilet paper, you know, rice ... islanders cannot survive without eating rice,” says Bokin. “All those kind of household necessities that we need on a daily basis.”

Isabela Silk, consul general for the Marshall Islands, says most stranded Marshallese are staying with family and friends in Hawai?i. She says another hundred or so Marshallese citizens are stranded around the world because of the coronavirus travel ban.

Credit Kelly Bokin / Marshallese Community Organization of Hawaii
Marshallese Community Organization of Hawaii
Bokin helps sort food donations of fresh fruit for distribution to stranded Marshallese citizens in Hawai'i.

“The Marshall Islands is currently holding discussions on the arrangements and protocols for citizens stranded here in COVID-19 infected countries to be repatriated,” said Silk.

Until the Marshallese government can ensure none of these stranded citizens return with the virus, the borders will remain closed. 


Ebeye native Kawa Jatois was in Hawai?i at the end of February to accompany his father-in-law who was seeking medical treatment in Honolulu for his diabetes.  They were scheduled to return to the Marshall Islands after the procedure in early March.

"So we went to the airport and found out that the flight was cancelled and we were told that we would be advised or informed of the next available flight," says Jatois.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands initially planned a two-week travel ban because of concern over COVID-19. But that policy has been extended multiple times over the past three months.

Traveling to Hawai'i for health services is not uncommon for many from the Marshall Islands, Palau, and Micronesia.  So when Jatois left his family and his quarry business, he didn't think he'd be away for three months. He's still in contact with everyone back home and he says he understands the gravity of the situation.

"I kept telling myself that it?s better to be safe than sorry. That?s what kept me going," says Jatois, "Everyday it?s like thinking whether...I don?t know if I have the virus or not and then what if I take it back home and infect the whole population?"

The Marshall Islands Journal reported Monday that the Republic of the Marshall Islands government is in talks with the State of Hawai'i over plans to quarantine stranded citizens in a proper quarantine facility in Honolulu for 14 days prior to boarding the plane home. There is one international flight for June scheduled by United Airlines for June 17-18. 

For more information on the Marshallese Community Organization of Hawai'i or to lend support to the stranded citizens, contact Kelly Bokin at (401)612-5524 or email kellybokin128@gmail.com. 

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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