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Filipinos in Lahaina say they have been neglected in wildfire response


When Debbie Arellano, 37, first saw the smoke, she scavenged what little she could from her studio and fled with her 18-month-old baby. As she left Lahaina, Hawaii, praying that her mother and cousins ​​weren’t too far behind, she worried about the future of her family – and that of her Filipino community as a whole. . She said she knew the toll would be disproportionate.

In the weeks following the fire, she was tossed around hotels, she witnessed the confusion of immigrant relatives as they struggled to fill out forms for assistance in English only, and she observed the growing distrust of its community with regard to the institutions.

Members of the affected Filipino community say they face unique challenges including continuing to work in the tourism industry, inability to access assistance due to language and immigration status and financial challenges related to their multi-generational households.

Filipinos make up about 25% of Hawaii’s population and are the state’s second-largest racial group, according to the 2020 census. They make up an even larger share in Lahaina, the city hardest hit by the fires. 40%, and they constitute a disproportionate segment of workers in the tourism industry.

And many of their stories still remain in the shadows, they fear. Filipinos are the largest undocumented population in the state, accounting for 46% of the population.

Aug. 21: People line up to buy free venison chili for dinner at Joey’s Kitchen, a Hawaiian-Filipino fusion restaurant, in Napili, west Maui.Tamir Kalifa/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“We have systems in place to take care of each other,” Arrelano said. “We have always taken care of each other.”

As multi-generational families break apart and attempt to pay individual rents with money they once pooled with loved ones, Arellano challenges the US government’s definition of a household.

“I have heard stories of families unable to find accommodation because landlords are unwilling to accommodate up to seven people in one unit,” she said. “Immigrant families have to split up to find rent, but can’t pay rent because they could only afford to live in Lahaina by coming together in one house and pooling their wages in the service sector in order to be able to pay the rent.

Filipino immigrants have a long history on the archipelago, according to the University of Hawaii. In the decades before Hawaii became a state in 1959, American corporations dominated American territory. Seeking cheap laborers to work on their sugar cane plantations, companies recruited men, known as sakadas, from the Philippines to bring them to Hawaii in the early 1900s.

Workers faced exploitative and harsh conditions and were often paid little or no pay for their labor, which fueled an economic boom in Hawaii. But many Filipino families put down deep roots on the island, and the population continued to grow, with thousands of Filipino immigrants arriving in Hawaii each year.

Lahaina, in particular, is considered a Filipino enclave, with many working-class families, especially those involved in the tourism industry, living in the area, said Khara Jabola-Carolus, co-founder and volunteer of the Maui-based immigrant group. Filipino rights organization Roots Reborn.

Filipinos in Lahaina say they have been neglected in wildfire response
From 1906 to 1946, 125,000 Filipinos were recruited to work in the sugar cane and pineapple fields of the Hawaiian Islands.Lyman Museum Collections

Maui-based immigration attorney Kevin Block said he’s been “in the trenches” with his clients since the fires. Her clients have told her poignant personal stories, including tales of multigenerational families crammed into individual cars and grandparents fleeing the flames on foot. And as the panic over the flight gave way to the rush for help, he said, Filipino immigrants had a particularly difficult time. Many have lost not only their homes and families, but also vital documents, such as their green card, visa information and Philippine passport. Getting them back isn’t always easy, he said. An obvious challenge was access to languages.

“There was a lot of confusion when the event happened, and some of the information that came out immediately after was definitely all in English,” he said.

Government agencies like citizenship and immigration services, which handle immigration formalities, offer forms only in English, adding to the confusion, he said.

“Of all the agencies that could translate their documents into other languages, that would be them, but they don’t,” he said. “And the forms are confusing.”

Citizenship and Immigration Services said they were making efforts to support immigrants to Maui after the fires, including distributing flyers in multiple languages ​​to promote a free legal clinic.

About 59% of Filipinos in Hawaii do not speak English at home. Community groups led the charge by having the materials translated into Spanish and Tagalog. Others also helped recruit translators for Ilocano, another language particularly common among Lahaina immigrants, spoken in the Ilocos region of the Philippines, where men were traditionally recruited to work on Hawaii’s plantations. .

Filipinos in Lahaina say they have been neglected in wildfire response
Joey Macadangdang, left, chef and owner of Joey’s Kitchen, and Israel Valentine wave goodbye after handing out hundreds of free dinner meals for the 13th night in a row in Napili, West Maui, August 20. Joey’s Kitchen, a Hawaiian-Filipino fusion restaurant, handed out free meals daily and initially served as a refuge for displaced employees after windswept wildfires destroyed most of Lahaina. Tamir Kalifa/The Washington Post via Getty Images

While some struggle to navigate decentralized aid sources, Jabola-Carolus said, many other undocumented people actively avoid government aid. She said many have a deep distrust of federal and state agencies, while others also fear endangering their lives in Hawaii or those of loved ones who are also undocumented. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, Jabola-Carolus added, is a sister agency to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, both under the Department of Homeland Security.

“You can’t expect people to suddenly believe that their hunter is their helper. … You can’t expect them to believe that the government trying to eliminate and deport them is now a source of refuge,” Jabola-Carolus said. “There are Filipino victims of the fires who are actively trying to hide from rescuers. »

Neither Immigration and Customs Enforcement nor the Department of Homeland Security responded to requests for comment. But the FEMA spokesperson told NBC News that, regardless of immigration status, “every survivor of a disaster is eligible for federal emergency in-kind, short-term, non-monetary” and that non-citizens will not be expelled.

Regardless of people’s status, distrust is common, Block said, and it makes them less likely to seek help. With organizations like FEMA requesting DNA samples, anxiety has grown.

Cathy Betts, director of the state’s Department of Social Services, who also traveled there with her mother to translate for Filipino immigrants, said the impact of the fire on the tourism industry has made many Filipino immigrants worried about the resettlement process.

Filipinos in Lahaina say they have been neglected in wildfire response
Debbie Arellano with her husband, Brandon, and their son, Bayani. The family is displaced by the fires in Lahaina, along with many other Filipinos in the area. Courtesy of Debbie Arellano

Recovering from the fires can seem like an uphill battle for many families, Betts said. But she said she saw a need for “cultural navigators” on the ground who could help demystify the different forms of aid, build trust with community members and help those in the tourism sector and in the beyond to get help if they need it.

“Their tourism industry is going to be devastated. … In the months to come, their economy will be decried and they will have to find other jobs. So it was very clear to me that people were starting to panic,” she said.

In some cases, Betts said, she encountered Filipino hospitality workers who continued to commute to their jobs at hotels daily, despite being relocated, eager to see visitors contribute to the economy.

“If people are busy at work, God bless them, but if they need resources to help them or to have some respite, that has to be there too,” Betts said.

Experts say an effective recovery will require ensuring that the Filipino community is an integral part of decision-making efforts.

“In reality, we are invisible,” Jabola-Carolus said. “If Filipinos aren’t at the table, arm in arm with Native Hawaiians, then none of this is guaranteed to truly heal the community.”