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Frustrated By White House Response, These SoCal Tongan Americans Are Taking Disaster Relief Into Their Own Hands

A woman in a red blouse with a medical mask hanging below her nose carries a metal gas container. She is surrounded by many other people.
A woman carries a refilled gas container in Tonga as the country struggles to recover from the deadly Jan. 15 volcanic eruption and tsunami.
(Courtesy of Sina Uipi
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Nearly as many Tongans are estimated to live in the U.S. as there are in Tonga itself, with ties running deep and wide across the Pacific.

Tongans who've settled overseas send remittances to bolster the economy of the tiny nation of islands, and families on both sides of the ocean make the long, expensive journey to see each other.

In fact, many Tongans who began coming to Los Angeles in the 1960s and ’70s in search of better jobs and education landed airline gigs at LAX, drawn in large part by discounted fares to visit the homeland.

“We know our family is there,” said Lolofi Soakai, founder and executive director of the Ontario-based Tongan American advocacy group, Motivating Action Leadership Opportunity (MALO). “We just feel that connection knowing everything started in Tonga. We're so proud to be Tongan. We know that our heritage is there, our ancestry.”

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So when twin disasters hit Tonga mid-January — volcano blasts followed by a tsunami — some Tongan American leaders say they expected to work in close concert with the U.S. government to help the South Pacific nation deal with the displacement of tens of thousands of people.

After saying they heard nothing from the White House for a week-and-a-half, some community leaders sent a Jan. 26 letter offering their help and expertise, while calling for more aid and action on climate change, which they say exacerbated the disasters. It was written by Tongan American Sina Uipi, policy associate of the L.A.-based Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC), and co-signed by MALO and more than 170 organizations representing Pacific Islanders and their allies.

The White House has announced additional aid for Tonga, bringing the total to$2.6 million. But to the disappointment of some Tongan American leaders, they say the White House has not included them in relief plans or properly acknowledged the impact of the disasters on their community, Uipi said.

“Our whole point of sending that letter was because nobody has asked us how we're doing and no one has checked in with us about how to provide for our families abroad,” Uipi said. “That speaks to how invisible we still are in this country. And it's really frustrating.”

Four smiling Tongan American women. Two women in center are holding babies.
Sina Uipi (second from left) on a visit to see family in Tonga. She is working to raise funds in her role at the L.A.-based Empowering Pacific Islander Communities.
(Courtesy of Sina Uipi)

The White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) did not directly address questions from KPCC/LAist about the groups’ letter.

Instead, Rebecca Lee, deputy director of the AANHPI office, pointed to a Jan. 26 statement by the State Department about its humanitarian aid to Tonga and a tweet by Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying he was "deeply concerned for the people of Tonga as they recover from the aftermath of a volcanic eruption and tsunami."

The White House hosted a briefing on Friday on Tonga relief efforts, featuring officials from USAID and the State Department. Krystal Ka'ai, the head of the White House AANHPI initiative, opened the briefing, noting how community leaders have been “very eager to get more updates.”

“We know that, really starting that weekend [of the disasters], we started to hear from so many of you, leaders here in the United States and the Tongan American and the broader Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander community who were worried about friends and family," Ka'ai said.

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Uipi said some Tongan American leaders afterward expressed frustration that issues they raised in their letter were not directly addressed in the briefing.

Uipi added that Tongan American organizations have special insight into which are the most effective and trustworthy organizations on the ground in Tonga through years of collaboration. While these groups would benefit from support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, local leaders say they are now trying to drum up the funds themselves.

EPIC and MALO in Southern California, for example, have partnered with other Pacific Islander groups in the state to fund-raise for a Tongan organization called Mainstreaming of Rural Development Innovation Tonga Trust (MORDI), which has been transporting residents of outer islands to safer ground and delivering clean water.

The Ontario-based MALO represents Tongan Americans in the Inland Empire.
(Courtesy of MALO)

Other fund-raising efforts are underway around the U.S. and beyond.

Anamatangi Polynesian Voices, based in East Palo Alto, is trying to fill a plane with emergency supplies to be distributed by the group’s Tonga chapter.

Meanwhile, internationally-renowned Tongan athletes are also trying to put the islands’ plight on the world stage, led by Pita Taufatofua, the nation‘s flag-bearer at multiple Olympic Games, who’s already raised nearly $800,000.

Pita Taufatofua, an Olympic flagbearer for Tonga, has been raising disaster relief funds.
(Hannah McKay - Pool/Getty Images
Getty Images AsiaPac)

The Tongan diaspora surpasses the 100,000 or so living on the Tongan islands. More than 67,000 people of Tongan descent reside in the U.S. — the largest concentrations being in California, Utah and Hawaii — and tens of thousands more immigrated to Australia and New Zealand.

The diaspora sends remittances amounting to about 37% of Tonga’s GDP — more than any other country, according to The World Bank.

Distance and cost have long been hurdles to traveling to Tonga, but the pandemic has presented the biggest challenge yet.

Tongan Americans have experienced high rates of Covid-19 transmission from working in service sector jobs and living in multi-generational households, which has affected their ability to support family in Tonga. And travel has been out of the question, given that Tonga was Covid-free up until several days ago when the virus was first detected among port workers, sending the country into lockdown.

Asena Filihia, a cousin of Soakai’s who also works at MALO as development director, has stayed closely connected to relatives, some of whom have come to visit over the years. Social media and messaging apps have been important bridges, but the disasters in Tonga have knocked out the internet connections for many households, making news difficult to retrieve.

Filihia said that what she views as insufficient outreach to the Tongan American community by the federal government underscores the work needed to raise awareness about their decades-long history in the U.S.

“We’re here,” Filihia said. “We’ve always been here.”

Three middle-aged Tongan Americans pose in a house.
Taione Tu’ikolovatu (center), father of Asena Filihia, hosts his cousin from Tonga (right).

Her own father arrived in 1978 in L.A. where his younger brother was already studying on scholarship. Filihia’s father, Taione Tu’ikolovatu, started out working for Korean Air at LAX before moving his family to Riverside County for a larger house and more yard space. Church became an important community gathering space — as did Tu’ikolovatu's own house. He and his wife welcomed other Tongan families getting their start in the U.S. who traded fishing and farming livelihoods for jobs in construction and landscaping, as Tu’ikolovatu later would.

“My father and others were quite literally building our cities, laying bricks on these roads, building up these homes,” Filihia said.

While Filihia wants more government recognition for Tongan Americans, she says that her community also has to do some reckoning of its own. She points out that Tongan Americans live in a country that is one of the world’s worst polluters.

“In America, we are responsible for some of the highest levels of greenhouse gases,” she said. “We are doing our part to raise awareness among our Tongan Americans that we impact Tonga.”

Clarification: Our story, based on an interview with an employee of Empowering Pacific Islander Communities, says the organization heard nothing from the White House for a week-and-a-half following the disaster. The executive director of the organization wants to acknowledge that she did receive a Jan. 15 e-mail from the the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, alerting her to a tweet by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. His tweet was included in this story at the time of publication, and can be read above.