American Samoans Stranded In US Amid Coronavirus

Courtesy Crystal Veavea

Crystal Veavea with daughter Miracle together before the pandemic.

Little did Crystal Veavea know when she boarded a flight from American Samoa on March 9th that she would be saying goodbye to her family for months. The 38-year-old usually flies from her home in Pago Pago to Lake Elsinore, California every two months for treatment for polycythemia vera, a form of blood cancer. But this time she was concerned about traveling as the coronavirus spread around the world.

I contacted my doctor and said, ‘Hey, can’t I come? Can I skip any of my medical treatments? ‘And he said no,’ Veavea told BuzzFeed News.

So Veavea flew to California for cancer treatment, as she was told, and was scheduled to return on April 9 – but in late March the American Samoa government closed its borders and suspended flights to and from the island. She couldn’t return home.

“Now I’m stuck here,” said Veavea. “I have no family here – it’s just me.”

Although more than 217,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, no cases of the virus have been recorded in American Samoa. Remote U.S. territory – a small island in the Pacific, roughly equidistant between Hawaii and New Zealand – is the only part of the country that has managed to remain completely COVID-free, largely due to the governor’s move to full in late March Close the island to the outside to prevent the virus from entering.

The decision kept its 55,000 residents free of the coronavirus – but it also left hundreds of them stranded in the States for months, far from their homes, with no indication of when to return. Many of these people went to the US for medical treatment or to care for sick family members. Little did they realize that this choice would mean staying miles away from their families and friends in living memory during one of the most tumultuous times. Now their finances are dwindling, their sanity is in crisis, and all they can do is long for the day to go home.

“It’s devastating because I left my daughter behind,” said Veavea, who has not seen her family for seven months. “Having to go through cancer treatment is a struggle in itself.”

Veavea now lives in the house she owns in California, and although she is grateful to have an apartment, the financial hardship of not being able to work to support herself and her family weighs heavily. Worse, she is incredibly lonely and her sanity has declined.

But FaceTiming her 15-year-old daughter Miracle is too hard to take. She prefers that Miracle, now being cared for by Veavea’s sister, just send her a message on Facebook so she doesn’t have to go through so much pain.

“[My daughter] always tell me mom i really miss you Mom i wish you were here Mom, I am introduced [National Honor Society]. You are missing out on all of my special moments, ”Veavea said. “And I promised her I would be there when I was diagnosed two years ago. I promised her I would fight. I’ll make sure I’m there for every milestone she had. “

David Briscoe / AP

A sailing ship in the port of Pago Pago, American Samoa, in 2002.

According to Eileen Tyrell, spokeswoman for the American Samoa Tagata Tutū Faatasi Alliance, a grassroots organization urging these people and their families to return, Veavea is one of more than 500 American Samoans stranded and faced with a brutal mix of problems .

Many American Samoans suffer from financial hardship and some are even homeless because they cannot make ends meet, but have not received any help from any government. Almost all of them are painfully lonely and miss their families.

“Some mothers complain that their younger babies don’t even recognize them through zoom or Facebook chat,” Tyrell told BuzzFeed News. “Some have said that their babies could cry for them at night and not go to sleep.”

Tyrell lives in Tacoma, Washington, but her own mother, Maraia Malae Leiato, who lives in Aua, American Samoa, is one of the many stuck far from home since staying with her daughter for a medical procedure .

Courtesy Eileen Tyrell

Eileen Tyrell with her mother Maraia Malae Leiato.

In September, American Samoa Governor Lolo Matalasi Moliga extended the suspension of flights to and from the island until at least the end of October, according to Samoa News. He previously said his priority was “to protect the lives of all residents of American Samoa, despite pressure from our stranded residents to return home.”

“We are certainly not aware of our residents’ sincere requests and longings to return home, but we believe that they are in a better place to seek medical help and sophisticated health care if the inevitable happens to one of them “said Moliga.

Iulogologo Joseph Pereira, chairman of the Territory’s Coronavirus Task Force, reiterated that assessment this week, telling the Associated Press that people have not been repatriated because “the interests of the island’s 60,000 residents and protecting their lives are the interests of the people 600 or more outweigh more residents are stranded in the US. “

“As the governor has consistently pointed out, there are more health facilities in Hawaii and the mainland states to access if they contract the virus,” said Pereira.

However, access to health facilities in the event they receive COVID-19 comes with a price.

Some residents of American Samoa had to deal with immigration problems. Tyrell’s mother, a Fijian citizen who has lived in American Samoa for decades, had to pay $ 450 to extend her visa to stay in the United States when she realized she had no other option to exceed it to avoid.

But the mental health effects are perhaps the most pressing, Tyrell said, both for those stuck in the U.S. and their loved ones back home. Feelings of isolation and hopelessness are commonplace, and she worries about them as the holiday season approaches.

“Can you imagine that the holidays are approaching and we are in limbo and what havoc this will cause?” She said. “It’s unfathomable, tragic and cruel.”

One of the most frustrating things is the lack of clarity as to whether there is a plan to get people home, Tyrell said. She and other group members have tried to write a petition and contact their government officials to offer ideas for a safe return, but nothing has made a difference as far as they can tell.

Tyrell’s group is not calling for the full reopening of American Samoa’s borders – they too want to protect the island from COVID-19. But they want a plan to get them home. They have brainstorming solutions that they detailed in the Samoa News such as: B. Staggering inbound flights and mandatory quarantines.

Such plans are not uncommon when it comes to governments bringing their citizens back during the pandemic. In Australia, citizens arriving from abroad must be quarantined in a hotel for 14 days at their own discretion. The quarantine is enforced by the military and individuals cannot leave their rooms. By October 15, people who went to Hawaii had to quarantine themselves for 14 days. Now travelers with a negative COVID-19 test can skip the quarantine entirely.

“We’re not fighting the government,” said Tyrell. “The governor keeps saying, ‘We’re protecting the 50,000 on the island.’ He weighs the life of the 50,000 against the 500 or 600. But it’s not us against them. “

“We feel abandoned,” she added, “like we don’t count.”

Fili Sagapolutele / AP

A security guard, left with a non-contact handheld temperature device at LBJ Medical Center, checks the temperature of a hospital worker before entering the facility in the village of Fagaalu, American Samoa on October 2, 2020

Veavea, the mother being treated for cancer, shares feelings of abandonment by her government. She does everything possible to take care of herself until she can go home to her daughter, including a therapist. She now has two emotional support dogs to keep her company – two huskies named Tokyo and Bogota. “They were puppies when I had them and they are now 6 months old,” she said.

Veavea doesn’t know when, but someday she will get on a plane and return to American Samoa. She will eat her favorite local food, taro and salmon oka, a dish made from raw fish marinated in lime and coconut milk. She tries to prepare the food in California, but the fish just doesn’t taste that fresh. “I know the difference,” she said.

But really, she just wants to hug the people she missed the most.

“To see my daughter and family is all I want,” she said. “Just so that they hug me and that I do the same. Thats all I need. “

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