Crystal Veavea had no idea, when she boarded a flight from American Samoa on March 9, that she would be saying goodbye to her family for months. The 38-year-old typically travels back and forth between her home in Pago Pago and Lake Elsinore, Calif., Every two months to be treated for polycythemia, a form of blood cancer. But this time she was afraid to travel when the coronavirus was starting to 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 her cancer treatment as she had been told to and was due back on April 9 – but at the end of March the government of American Samoa closed the borders and suspended flights to and from the island. She couldn’t get home.
“So now I’m stuck here,” Veavea said. “I don’t have a family here – it’s just me.”
Even like over 217,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States, American Samoa has not recorded any cases of the virus. Remote U.S. Territory – a small island in the Pacific Ocean, roughly equidistant between Hawaii and New Zealand – is the only part of the country which has managed to remain completely COVID-free, in large part thanks to the governor’s decision in late March to completely shut the island off to the outside world to keep the virus out.
The move has kept its 55,000 residents free from the coronavirus – but it has also left hundreds stranded in the United States, far from home, for months and with no indication of when they will be allowed to return. Many of these people went to the United States for medical treatment or to care for sick family members, not realizing that this choice would mean being stuck miles away from family and friends during one of the periods. the most tumultuous in living memory. Now their finances are shrinking, their sanity is in crisis, and all they can do is wait until the day they can go home.
“It’s devastating, because I left my daughter behind,” said Veavea, who has not seen her family for seven months. “Having to undergo treatment for cancer is a battle in itself.”
Veavea now stays in the house she owns in California, and although she is grateful for having a place to live, the financial difficulties of not being able to work to support herself and her family weigh heavily. Worse yet, she is incredibly lonely and her sanity has collapsed.
But FaceTiming, her 15-year-old daughter, Miracle, is too much to bear. She prefers for Miracle, who is now taken care of by Veavea’s sister, to message her on Facebook so that 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 there. Mom, I’m inducted [National Honor Society]. You miss all my special moments ” Veavea said. “And I promised him that I was going to be there, when I was diagnosed two years ago. I promised him that I would fight. I’ll make sure to be there for every step she’s taken.
Veavea is one of more than 500 stranded American Samoans who face a brutal mix of problems, according to Eileen Tyrell, spokesperson for the Tagata Tutū Faatasi Alliance of American Samoa, a grassroots organization of such people and their families who lobbied for their return.
Many American Samoans suffer from financial hardship and some are even homeless because they cannot make ends meet, but they have not received any help from any government. Almost all of them are terribly alone and have lost their families.
“Some mothers bemoan their youngest babies not recognizing them, even through Zoom or Facebook,” Tyrell told BuzzFeed News. “Some said their babies also cried for them at night and couldn’t fall asleep.”
Tyrell lives in Tacoma, Washington, but her own mother, Maraia Malae Leiato, who lives in Aua, American Samoa, is one of the many people stuck away from home since coming to live with her daughter for a medical intervention.
In September, the governor of American Samoa, Lolo Matalasi Moliga, extended the suspension of flights to and from the island at least until the end of October, according to Samoa News. He has said previously its priority is to “protect the lives of all residents of American Samoa despite pressure from our stranded residents who demand to return home.”
“We are certainly not oblivious to our residents’ sincere requests and desire to return home, but from our perspective they are in a better place to seek medical assistance and sophisticated health care if the inevitable. was coming to one of them, ”Moliga told me.
Iulogologo Joseph Pereira, chairman of the Territory’s Coronavirus Task Force, echoed the sentiment this week, telling the Associated press people were not repatriated because “the interests of the 60,000 residents of the island and the protection of their lives outweigh the interests of the 600 or more residents stranded in the United States.”
“As the governor has continually pointed out, more health facilities are available in Hawaii and in states on the mainland that they can access if they contract the virus,” Pereira said.
But access to health facilities in case they contract COVID-19 comes at a price.
Some residents of American Samoa have faced immigration challenges. 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 way to avoid passing it.
But the mental health effects are perhaps the most pressing, Tyrell said, both for those stuck in the United States and for those close to them at home. Feelings of isolation and hopelessness are rife, and she worries about them as the holidays approach.
“Can you imagine the holidays coming up and we’re stuck in limbo, and the devastation that will cause?” she says. “It’s unfathomable, it’s tragic and it’s cruel.”
One of the most frustrating things is the ambiguity over whether there is a plan to bring people home, Tyrell said. She and other members of the group tried to write a petition and contacting their government officials, offering them ideas on how they could get home safely, but so far 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 also want to protect the island from COVID-19. But they want a plan to get them home. They thought about solutions, which they detailed in Samoa News, such as staggered inbound flights and mandatory quarantines.
Such plans are not out of the ordinary when it comes to repatriating its citizens through governments during the pandemic. In Australia, citizens arriving from abroad are required to self-quarantine in a hotel for 14 days at their discretion. Quarantine is applied by the militaryand individuals cannot leave their rooms. Until October 15, people Hawaii were also required to self-quarantine for 14 days, but now a negative COVID-19 test will allow travelers to go fully into quarantine.
“We are not fighting the government,” Tyrell said. “The governor keeps saying: ‘We are protecting the 50,000 inhabitants of the island.’ He continually assesses the lives of 50,000 people versus 500 or 600. But it’s not us against them.
“We feel a sense of abandonment,” she added, “as if we don’t matter.”
Veavea, the mother being treated for cancer, shares the feeling of being abandoned by her government. She does everything she can to take care of herself until she can return home to her daughter, including seeing a therapist. She now has two emotional support dogs to keep her company – two huskies, named Tokyo and Bogota. “They were puppies when I first had them, and now they’re 6 months old,” she says.
Veavea doesn’t know when, but one day she will eventually board a plane and return to American Samoa. She will eat her favorite local dishes, taro and oka salmon, a dish of raw fish marinated in lime and coconut milk. She tries to cook the meal in California, but the fish doesn’t taste so fresh. “I know the difference,” she says.
But really, she just wants to kiss the people she’s missed the most.
“Seeing my daughter and my family is all I want,” she says. “Just for them to hug me, and for me to do the same.” That’s all I need.