Celebrating Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Celebrating Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

This month, Airlink is highlighting the work of three nonprofit partners based in the U.S. that support countries and communities in both Asia and the Pacific Islands. 

In celebration of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Airlink is highlighting the work of three nonprofit partners based in the U.S. that support countries and communities in both Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is a month-long celebration of communities and individuals in the United States with ties to the Asian continent and the Pacific Islands of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.

May was chosen as the month of commemoration to mark the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to the United States on May 7, 1843 and Golden Spike Day, or the completion of the first U.S. transcontinental railroad, on May 10, 1869, which was possible due to the significant contribution of Chinese workers.

‘Anamatangi Polynesian Voices 

‘Anamatangi Polynesian Voices (APV) is a California-based grassroots organization that has served families of the Polynesian diaspora since 1997 through heritage preservation and civic engagement. Following the eruption of the Hunga Tonga–Hunga Ha’apai volcano in January 2022, APV stepped in to provide humanitarian assistance to affected communities throughout Tonga. Airlink has supported APV’s response in Tonga through the movement of over 16 metric tons of sanitation and cleaning supplies. On behalf of ‘Anamatangi Polynesian Voices, Executive Director Tiffany Hautau provided her insights for the blog.

Nito’s Wings 

Nito’s Wings (NW) is also a California-based organization supporting Marshallese communities, both in the Marshall Islands and throughout Northern California. Nito’s Wings advocates for patient-centered, culturally sensitive, and geographically cognizant care. Nito’s Wings works alongside local community leaders, its sister organization in the Marshall Islands, as well as local service providers to assist in developing medical infrastructure. Airlink has provided round-trip flights for members of Nito’s Wings to provide critical medical training, distribution of medical supplies, and program implementation. Founder and CEO of Nito’s Wings, Deborah Yoder, provided her insights for the blog as well as Secretary Marlene Tolliver (Riklon), a Retired U.S. Coast Guard member from the Namu Atoll.

Sri Lanka Association of Oregon

Sri Lanka Association of Oregon (SLAO) was established in 2019 to engage the Sri Lankan community in the Greater Portland Area. Following the economic crisis in March 2022, Sri Lankans have experienced rapid inflation on essential goods such as food, fuel, and medical products. SLAO has been working with the Ministry of Health, local partner Healthline Lanka and 15 (out of 26) district hospitals throughout the country to provide medical aid to those who are unable to access it. Airlink recently supported the movement of 3.6 metric tons of critically needed medications and medical supplies to ensure healthcare access. Insights have been provided by Joe Perera, Treasurer for SLAO.

Q: How did your organization become involved in humanitarian response?

APV: APV has been responding to various local disparities and rallying around systems’ change around a plethora of issues: immigration, access to housing, local policy reform etc. When APV first heard of the tsunami in Tongatapu we were contacted by Tonga Victoria Fakalata a local EPA long-time resident but at that time she was residing in Ohio. Tonga Victoria reached out to the founder of APV, Mama Dee, and was able to share some incredible news that the UPS Foundation would like to donate an aircraft to help deploy supplies, food and water to Tongatapu. Our team immediately put a call to action to our local stakeholders, community members, and APV families to devise a plan to begin the search for free medical supplies, food, and water. APV understood that this was a monumental lift as an organization that was running on a shoestring budget; but had enormous faith that by working together we can pull it off.

NW (Deborah Yoder): Our involvement in the COVID-19 response was imperative for our organization. Considering two-thirds of our board are Marshallese living in the United States and that we work closely with our sister nonprofit based in the Marshall Islands, we were walking the journey of this disaster beside the community before it was even declared as such. These relationships provided stories of the lived experiences and real-time feedback into the needs. Additionally, the trusting relationship we already had with the Marshall Islands Ministry of Health and Human Services from our previous projects allowed us direct communications with their team when a State of Health Disaster was declared, and aid was requested.

SLAO: The role of response came from a humanitarian and community perspective to help our fellow Sri Lankans during one of the most devastating times in the country’s history. The crippling effect of people dying due to the lack of basic essential medicines was not something where we could stand back and watch.

Q: What role has your organization played in its respective response?

APV: APV responded to the catastrophic volcanic eruption in January 2022 by first putting our ears to the ground and observing how the local community were responding. Various church groups, local and statewide NGOs rallied to collectively donate and ship items to Tonga. APV took the approach of first finding out what resource can we collectively gather to make a greater impact and ensure the donations and funds are allocated to the most impacted in Tongatapu and outer islands.

NW (Deborah Yoder): The Marshall Islands comprises 29 coral atolls and 5 islands. There are two hospitals, one each on Majuro and Ebeye, with small outer island health dispensaries spread throughout the rest of the islands. We worked side by side with the Marshall Islands Ministry of Health and Human Services (MOHHS) in our response and acquisition of PPE. Once the priority PPE arrived, we worked with the MOHHS to determine the areas of greatest need. This was dynamic as by the time the PPE arrived the distribution considerations had changed, but we were prepared for this in advance due to our relationships within the community pointing us to what the greatest unmet needs might be. Thus, we focused this equitable distribution on the outer island health assistant dispensaries, households, and schools. We were told this was the first distribution of its type. We collaborated with our Marshall Islands-based sister organization, Nito’s Butterfly Foundation, as well as built on the relationships of our board members as resources for contacting local government leadership. We additionally included the Outer Islands Health Care (OIDS), the Ministry of Education, as well as the Ministry of Culture and Internal Affairs. These collaborations allowed us to assure equitable distribution through obtaining the most recent household census, school enrollment information, identifying how many active OIDS health dispensaries were on each atoll, as well as contacting the local governments to assist with distribution.

SLAO: The response is based on urgency and compassion. We focused on finding a way to allocate resources in the United States to resolve the medical crisis in Sri Lanka. Our research led to a partnership with the Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB). We went through a rigorous vetting process and contractual obligations to ensure the donated medicines were distributed to the hospitals and patients. The next step was distribution and communication with our in-country partners, which resulted in an invaluable partnership with Healthline Lanka (HLL). Dulan Weerasinghe, President of HLL, was instrumental in forging the distribution system, inventory management, and communication lines with the hospitals/doctors and the Ministry of Health. This comprehensive network set up by HLL is the backbone and foundation where the Sri Lanka Association of Oregon (SLAO), was able to complete its ultimate goal of helping people in need.

Also, HLL found that the Sri Lankan government’s medicine and medical need tracking system is disconnected from more than eighty percent of the healthcare facilities spread across the nation. This disconnect created a chronic disparity between the main healthcare facilities and the remainder of the healthcare system in medicine distribution. HLL started to build a comprehensive inventory management system for Sri Lanka that connect all the existing healthcare facilities bridging the gaps between the true and partially collected medicine need.

Q: What do you think is the value that diaspora groups add to humanitarian response?

APV: As these populations grow, so does their potential for impact as they transfer resources, knowledge, and ideas back to their home countries. The backbone of diaspora contributions to development comes in the form of remittances – the financial resources sent back to their original countries will assist in rebuilding and basic needs. But the question is, can the diaspora do more? What Pasifika organizations are working to bridge the same gaps that are being challenged in their original countries? Can we create programs that bridge those gaps to increase economic development, personal development etc.

NW (Marlene Tolliver): I believe diaspora groups bring immense value to the humanitarian response. First, being from that specific demographic, we are able to speak to where and what the needs are and quite possibly how best to meet these humanitarian needs and/or requirements. But most importantly, at the core of it, I believe it brings a sense of calm to those we are serving. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen a person’s face light up, and that sense of calm comes over them when they see me approaching to offer assistance. I know how that feels because I was that person. I was that person in need, desperate, lost, so seeing someone familiar is always a welcoming sense of relief.

SLAO: Sri Lankans in the United States have a sense of purpose and rich cultural pride in their motherland. The direct link between the crisis and the urge of helping people in need solidified our commitment.

Q: What have been your biggest challenges in your humanitarian response work?

APV: Procurement, risk coordination and training. Funding provided to conduct grass roots training and handling coordination with local government agencies and personnel. Funding to sustain on the ground work, relationships, and accountability.

NW (Deborah Yoder): Funding has been especially challenging. If not for partners like Airlink there is no way we could have been so intimately involved with this response. Even with our entire response to this disaster being a voluntary workforce, and the PPE provided being from in-kind donations, there remained significant costs related to responding. However, we believe wholeheartedly in the work we are doing and are passionate in finding solutions. We have been thankful for the challenges because they have led to new capacity-building relationships that we might never have had without encountering the challenges along the way.

SLAO: There were four main challenges. (1) Finding a medicine donation partner so the project can continue into the foreseeable future. (2) Getting the funding for the Air/Sea Freight, (3) ensuring the donated medicines are allocated to the healthcare facilities across the country in a fair and transparent manner, and (4) lack of human resources to undertake the tasks.

Q: If you had to choose one key lesson learned for other diaspora organizations working in humanitarian response, what would that be?

APV: What is needed is for organizations and decision makers as a whole to make listening and responding to people their real priority. We need to increase awareness of that gap between what is delivered in a crisis and what people actually want. And by doing this, we can increase the consequences for humanitarian agencies of not listening. This has the power to change how agencies make decisions about the support they will provide.

NW (Marlene Tolliver): Manage expectations. It is imperative that the team and other responding entities have a clear idea of what resources are needed. I’ve seen many times, resources are sent to my country and end up being wasted because they are not needed for the specific disaster. It is important for the diaspora organizations and/or team members to have what we call in the military as Pre-Mission brief with other entities and/or volunteers that touches on all the necessary dangers, health or otherwise, as well as help provide education on cultural cognizance, etc. This will help ensure each team member is prepared for the different conditions they may experience.

SLAO: Resilience, staying true to yourself, believing in the process, and the cause of helping people.

Thank you to our aviation and logistics partners who helped support these responses: Qatar Airways, Flexport, Priority Worldwide Services, Fiji Airways, and United Airlines.

If you have any questions or would like to learn more about Airlink’s work in Asia & the Pacific, please reach out to Jenny Torner (jtorner@airlinkflight.org) and Claire Leow (claireleow@airlinkflight.org).

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