“Because you are an American Lady, you can do Something for the Marshall Islands.”
Fred Beren, a Filipino man who has lived with his Marshallese wife in the Marshall Islands for about three decades, does not know what is causing his country’s landscape and climate to change. But he thinks that Americans can do something about it. This belief comes from deep springs of hope; trust; and confidence, rather than a sense of blame or resentment. He understands that something bad is happening to his island home because he lives with the changes every day.
It is hard to imagine a home more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change- Fred’s home sits precariously on a small mound above the Pacific ocean, each wave lapping close to everything he owns. I stumbled upon Fred during a morning walk while taking photographs of the foreboding cemetery near his home. Friendly and sincere, Fred came out of his already ajar front door and seemed eager to connect.
He spoke fondly of a time when the Marshall Islands were “bigger” and more robust. He reminisced of a beach he used to swim at, where coconut trees provided shade (and perhaps a mid-swim break of sustenance). Now, he says this beach is nearly unrecognizable- the coconut trees have relinquished themselves to the shore- toppling under the stress of the advancing salty sea. He knows people who have homes near that particular beach who experience frequent flooding. Since he lives on the tide-side of the island of Majuro, he has noticed the waves increasing in intensity and height, particularly during the winter King Tide season.
When asked why this may be happening, Fred is not quick to blame. He wonders if the ice melting in other parts of the world might be contributing to the rising sea in his backyard. But during our conversation, I never sensed an iota of “agenda” or that he was repeating warnings that were preached to him in any way. Rather, Fred came across as a humble, simple, concerned man who loves his home. When I asked if I could take pictures of his back yard (the Pacific), he was hesitant at first because it had not been cleaned. He was referring to the garbage that washes up on shore, present on every remote island I have ever stepped foot on- inhabited or uninhabited. He loves living in the Marshall Islands because there is “no crime… it is safe here and the people are friendly.” But since he is very close to the ocean, he worries about bigger waves or further sea level rise in the future.
We walk to Fred’s backyard and notice gleeful Marshallese children bodysurfing on a consistent break just to the south of his home. Fred is concerned that I may fall and pays careful attention to my every rocky step as if I am a toddler navigating a stairway for the first time. As I thanked him profusely for his candor, he rushes to top my gratitude, thanking me for flying to his home and taking time to learn his story. I probed a little to find out why he was so appreciative of the opportunity to share his experience. In response- his parting words: “Because you are an American lady, you can do something for the Marshall Islands.”