Kelso Washington Chuukese

“I put in my application, and the very next day somebody called me back,” said 37-year-old Anter Sasuo, Kelso School District’s part-time Chuukese interpreter. Sasuo also has experience interpreting at a Hawaiian clinic.

The number is still small — 47 Chuukese students are currently enrolled — but the Chuukese, and those who work with them, say that number will continue to grow.

They’re likely right. The Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population has doubled in both Cowlitz and Clark counties in the past 15 years, according to the state Office of Financial Management. In Cowlitz County, the community has grown 18.5 percent in the past five years, with one-third of the county’s Chuukeese population age 19 or younger. In Clark County, the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander population grew at an even faster rate than Cowlitz County’s: a 23.6 percent rise.

It started with one or two families, and their reasons for coming here varied. Most came seeking better opportunities for their families. Many found jobs at Foster Farms. Others, like Pastor Marvin Danis, were drawn to the area in connection with a missionary Catholic church — the Beyond the Reef Theological Center south of Portland in Aurora, Ore.

Beginning of a migration trend
Local Chuukese do have one common thread that ties them together: family.

On Sunday afternoons, the Women’s Club in Longview filled with Chuukese families for a Catholic service in their native tongue. Women dress in leis and colorful muumuus adorned with flower prints while men wear suits and ties or a button-up collar shirt. Babies are bundled up and sleep together on blankets on the floor beside their mothers.

“This is the center of the community,” Danis said after a Mother’s Day church service. “On Sunday we’re together.” The service was scattered with Sasuo’s family. His uncle was the pastor. His sister-in-law took a seat in front of him.

The church service lasts two to three hours, and then they eat. A whole fish, slabs of grilled chicken, several hefty slices of beef, cornmeal, breadfruit — are served for a single person.

Many Chuukese who now reside in Kelso first moved to Hawaii to provide their children with an American education. But the island state focused “more on the tourists than the local people,” Sasuo said. “That’s a big problem.”

Sasuo lived in Hawaii for 15 years, but like many Chuukese, he found that Hawaii had grown too expensive. The family migrated further east, moving to Kelso in May 2015 to live with his brother-in-law, one of the first Chuukese people to move here. Sasuo, his wife and two kids got their own place after about a year.

In the late 1990s, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization in Portland began working with Chuukese people, said Lee Po Cha, executive director for the organization. The community was relatively small then, Cha said, and Tongans and Samoans were the more prominent Pacific Islander populations. Over the past few years, Cha has seen the community grow and now may be the largest Pacific Islander population in the Portland area.

But Cha said he expects Portland’s growth to slow for one main reason — housing costs have soared. He says many have joined a cousin, or an uncle, or a brother across state borders. A family that pays $295 per square foot for a home in Portland can buy a home in Kelso for $124 a square foot, according to Zillow’s Home Value Index. (In Longview it’s $135 per square foot.) The median home value in Portland is $406,200 compared to just $150,400 in Kelso.

“That is one of the main reasons that they are moving out from this area to Southwest Washington,” Cha said. “One, their family is a pretty good size. To find those apartments that house anywhere between two to four bedrooms is no longer affordable.”

“We have the mentality that someday, we’ll go back to Chuuk,” Sasuo said. “If we were to go back to Chuuk someday, then we leave (family) behind somewhere they don’t belong. It’s very, very important.”

Family members even ship their relatives’ bodies back to Chuuk if they die away from Chuukese soil. It’s a costly one- to two-day trek back to Chuuk, involving a

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