By Brady Fergusson
Two countries, 7000 miles apart, with a 203-year age difference between them. The fact that a joint celebration of their independence exists is, as the common Kiribati phrase goes, kamiimii ma e koaua - surprising but true.
Kiribati is located in the Central Pacific Ocean and gained independence from the U.K. on July 12, 1979. My wife is I-Kiribati, as people of Kiribati are called; we met while I was serving in the Peace Corps on her island.
Every year, Kiribati-Americans spend the 4th of July commemorating the freedom of both their countries. Rather than having two separate celebrations, people take advantage of the holiday weekend and celebrate both Independence Days together. Because my wife is I-Kiribati, I have had the pleasure of participating in these annual events. Although we have not traveled to a gathering the past two years due to COVID-19 concerns, we are together in spirit as we celebrate and reminisce about previous get-togethers.
I remember the unique juxtaposition of cultures I observed at the 2019 celebration in Georgia: sparklers and firecrackers followed by Kiribati songs, playing Super Smash Bros. then practicing Kiribati dances, and eating hot dogs and baked beans with taro and grilled fish. Many families were composed of an I-Kiribati, their Returned Peace Corps/Kiribati Volunteer spouse, and their children. It was impressive to see how two cultures that developed so far apart could blend so easily.
But ensuring the long-term persistence of Kiribati culture may not be as simple. Because of climate change and the rising ocean, it is likely that the I-Kiribati will have to leave their islands in the future. Where will our children’s cousins go if they can no longer live on their islands? How will that affect our kids’ cultural heritage?
People who have moved from Kiribati to the United States show how cultures can persist as people migrate. Although life here is very different from living on a Pacific island, I-Kiribati have sought to preserve their culture. I have participated in this process while raising two children with my I-Kiribati wife. We felt reassured in 2019 when we saw that our children can be very American while also proudly sustaining their I-Kiribati culture.
The way these I-Kiribati immigrated to the U.S. facilitated the preservation of their culture. They came through established immigration pathways, which allowed them to successfully integrate into our society and systems. They could then meet their basic needs and have time to organize events to sustain their traditions. And they have been supported by their new neighbors in celebrating their culture.
Despite this success, only a small percentage of I-Kiribati people have emigrated from their homeland. Most do not want to abandon the islands their families have lived on for countless generations. But many recognize that they may be forced to leave in the future. And currently, those ready to depart have limited options to do so. We need to expand regular, orderly migration pathways for people from Kiribati and elsewhere who will have to move due to the impacts of climate change.
Our national leadership has recently recognized the need to plan for climate change migration. In February, President Biden ordered a report on climate change and its impact on migration to be completed by August. In April, Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez of New York and Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts reintroduced the Climate Displaced Persons Act, which would authorize the admission of climate-displaced persons while also establishing a global climate change resilience strategy so that more people can safely remain in their homes. By getting behind these efforts, we can support the persistence of Kiribati culture, as well as other cultures around the world.
If you would like to ask your Members of Congress to support the Climate Displaced Persons Act, here’s a simple tool you can use to send them messages: https://www.congressweb.com/NPCA/71#/71/
Brady Fergusson lives in Rochester, NY with his wife, Bobure, and their two kids, Marjorie and Kenji. He served in the Peace Corps in Kiribati 2006-2008. He works as the Director of Public Engagement at the Climate Solutions Accelerator of the Genesee-Finger Lakes Region. He also volunteers with RPCVs for Environmental Action: https://www.rpcv4ea.org