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PACIFIC TO PRAIRIE: Marshallese population in Enid faces struggles

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
A native of the Marshall Islands, Joelynn Karben is a nursing assistant in Enid who works with the Marshallese community.
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This is Part 1 in an ongoing series about Oklahoma's Marshallese community, which is primarily centered in Enid.

ENID, Okla. – Stopping by the Enid Community Clinic on Broadway, a man originally from the Marshall Islands, waits to see a doctor about his feet. The man is diabetic and does not speak English. Fortunately, a certified nursal assistant and a native of the Marshall Islands, Joelynn Karben, a friendly woman who translates and offers assistance at the clinic, which is only open a few times during the week. Fortunately, thanks to an annual fundraising event, the clinic can provide limited health care to the uninsured - many of whom are Marshallese.

Karben, who works for Rural Health Projects, Inc., has been living and working in Enid since 2012. She told Red Dirt Report that she enjoys her job and sees plenty of fellow Marshallese come through the clinic's door, all with various ailments and illnesses. These health problems are reportedly linked to two sources: poor nutrition, which is linked to the U.S. military's presence on the Pacific islands since World War II - and with them, processed and essentially unhealthy food; and secondly, the legacy of America's 12-year nuclear bombing campaign - "tests" - that resulted in many Marshallese ending up as "human guinea pigs" to see what effects exposure to radioactive fallout would have on the human body. 

And it was horrific. With Operation Crossroads beginning in 1946, 67 nuclear tests were conducted in the Marshall Islands, up until 1958.

Many are still dealing with the trauma of the nuclear testing, with the March 1, 1954 Castle Bravo test being the key event that led to fallout from that enormous hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll to cover a wide swath of the Marshall Islands - a chain of islands, or "atolls," that were part of a series of ancient volcanoes in the region of the Pacific known as Micronesia.

While the Marshall Islands became an independent republic in 1986, they are still a de facto colony of the American military, with a Compact of Free Association (COFA) which allows the U.S. to offer aid and protection in exchange for cointinued use of the Kwajalein Atoll for its missile testing range in the atoll's lagoon.

"We're on COFA," says Karben. "We can come here to find work and go to schools with no restrictions."

Also, this means Marshallese citizens are allowed to live and work in the U.S. without a visa, which is why so many Marshallese come to cities like Enid and Springdale, Arkansas, to work in factories that process chicken, or in other low-skill, low-wage jobs. 

Outside the Enid Community Clinic. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

Still, talking to Karben, she is happy to be in Enid, even if she started out working in rough conditions - at first. 

"I like (Enid)," she said. "It's not like the big city. Marshallese prefer smaller cities."

There are approximately 4,000 Marshallese living in Enid.

And Enid's Marshallese population is pretty tight, located primarily on the city's east side, where one can shop at the KVM Pacific Mart from packaged treats and other items from the Pacific nation.

The cashier at the Marshallese-run KVM Pacific Mart pulls a Marshallese song book from the case. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

But she acknowledges that many Marshallese arrived unfamiliar with the laws and rules regarding health insurance. In the Marshall Islands, Karben said, "you don't have to have insurance." If you get sick, you can typically get treated. But because they don't have insurance here in Enid, many allow small health issues get bigger and unmanageable, requiring more serious medical care.

At the state level, the Marshallese had a voice at the Capitol in State Sen. Patrick Anderson (R-Enid), who worked hard in their favor, trying to educate fellow legislators about the community and their needs.

In an interview last year with the Enid News & Eagle, Anderson said that “under federal law, members of the Micronesian community can work and pay taxes, but they don’t have access to federal funding in the Medicaid system. That certainly causes a problem for reimbursement for local hospitals.”

Anderson was term-limited and Sen. Roland Pederson (R-Burlington), a farmer and rancher from Alfalfa County, along the Kansas state line, was elected last year to represent Senate District 19. 

Meeting Pederson at a local hamburger stand, he admitted that he was "pretty well shooting blind on this one," regarding the needs of the community in his Senate district. But, Pederson said he "wanted to learn more" and was briefed by Anderson about some of the key issues the Enid Marshallese are facing.

State Sen. Roland Pederson (R-Burlington). (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

Karben said that the Marshallese "pay federal and state taxes"

Terry Mote, a well-known and respected Marshallese man who lives in Enid and works with the state's Department of Health, also talked to Red Dirt Report about the health problems facing his community and that at the end of September he was going with the Micronesian Coalition to meet with Sens. James Inhofe and James Lankford, both Republicans, about their needs.

During the Clinton years, in 1996, the U.S. Congress ended access to Medicaid health insurance for Marshall Islanders, Micronesians and Palauans, while later causing problems for these same Pacific communities by preventing them from obtaining regular state driver’s license identification cards, even though they are in the U.S. legally.

Again, having access to Medicaid would be a tremendous help for the Marshallese, Mote said, saying he has been fighting for it for a while now.

"I think what should be done is the federal level should us back to pre-1996," Mote said, a few weeks before his trip to Washington to meet with Oklahoma's two senators.

(Red Dirt Report will have more on that meeting in an upcoming story).

EDITOR'S NOTE: (9:41 a.m. Oct. 5, 2017): Joelynn Karben now works in Enid as a Community Health Worker for the Micronesian population.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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