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Stranded in the U.S., American Samoans are unable to go home

American Samoa is one of the few places in the world with zero reported COVID-19 cases. The U.S. territory, 2,600 miles from Hawaii, shut down its borders in March to commercial flights to prevent the spread of the virus to its 55,000 residents. The cost? An estimated 562 American Samoan residents are stranded and still waiting for when they can get home. Laura Fong reports.

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  • Michael Hill:

    While the COVID-19 pandemic has touched nearly every country in the world and all 50 United States, one U.S. territory has zero reported cases of the coronavirus.

    American Samoa shut down its borders and halted all incoming commercial flights in March. But shutting down its borders has come at a cost: Hundreds of American Samoans cannot go home and are stranded across the U.S.

    NewsHour Weekend's Laura Fong has more.

  • Fiti Aina:

    They always ask what, what time are you going to come back home? When are you going to come back home?

  • Laura Fong:

    Fiti Aina is stranded in Honolulu, Hawaii, 2,600 miles away from his home, his wife Danielle and their six kids, who are in American Samoa. His youngest, Jolizabeth, just turned a year old last week.

  • Fiti Aina:

    My youngest started walking, and it makes it so hard, not to be there next to them.

  • Danielle Aina:

    I told my kids, you know, just pray on it. Pray on it.

  • Laura Fong:

    His wife Danielle works as a sixth grade teacher.

  • Danielle Aina:

    It's not going to be the same. There's always that piece missing. We need to put that piece back in place. That's our only wish, not only me, but my kids, too, is to have him, have him home for the holidays.

  • Laura Fong:

    The Aina family live in American Samoa, a U.S. territory with about 55,000 residents and a five-hour flight from Honolulu.

    In March, American Samoa halted all incoming commercial flights due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Since then, with no commercial flights available, Governor Lolo Matalasi Moliga has allowed two chartered flights to leave the island for those in need of medical treatment, as American Samoa has limited medical resources.

    Fiti Aina needed gallbladder surgery and when he got on one of those flights in July, he was told it was a one-way ticket.

  • Fiti Aina:

    It was a sacrifice that I made when I heard there's a one-way ticket, but I was praying that one day that they're going to have a flight to go back home.

    Four months later, he still doesn't know when he can return home.

  • Fiti Aina:

    It's gonna get to that point when, like getting crushed down and your hope it's not there anymore.

  • Laura Fong:

    Now, Fiti Aina is one of an estimated 562 American Samoa residents trying to get back from the United States.

    The majority are stranded in Hawaii, Washington state, California and Utah.

  • Laura Fong:

    If there was a flight in the next few weeks, they would be wanting to get on that flight?

  • Eileen Tyrell:

    If there was a flight tomorrow, they would do whatever they can to get home because they want to get home to their families.

  • Laura Fong:

    Eileen Tyrell is president of Tagata Tutu Faatasi Alliance of American Samoa. In Samoan, it means "people standing together."

    The Alliance is pressing for the American Samoa government to repatriate its residents as safely and as soon as possible.

  • Eileen Tyrell:

    It has become a therapeutic platform, it has become an informational hub.

  • Laura Fong:

    Tyrell began organizing the group when her mother Maraia Malae Leiato, became stranded earlier this year while visiting Tyrell in Washington state.

    While many American Samoan residents are U.S. nationals, meaning they can work and visit the U.S. easily, some are visiting on visitor visas, like her mother.

    Tyrell estimates as many as 100 American Samoa residents are stranded here on six-month visas, with a costly fee to renew.

  • Eileen Tyrell:

    A lot of them had already paid out of pocket because they were afraid, they were very afraid of having ICE come after them. And they have had to scramble to pay for the $455 extension visa fee.

  • Laura Fong:

    On Friday nights, the Alliance holds a weekly "wellness check-in" for people to connect and share their stories.

  • Miriama Fasavalu:

    We're all going through the same thing, we're stranded here and we miss home.

  • Eileen Tyrell:

    They go through depression, they go through grief, you know, and what they're able to process. It has been an emotional journey, financial strain for the families.

  • Laura Fong:

    There is also the fear of getting the coronavirus.

    According to the Pacific Islander COVID-19 response team, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders contract the virus at disproportionately high rates in states where data is collected by race.

    In Hawaii, Pacific Islanders — including Samoans — are the most likely to be hospitalized or die from the coronavirus. more than any other racial or ethnic group.

  • Laura Fong:

    And is that also a concern of some of your stranded residents here that they could get COVID in the waiting process?

  • Eileen Tyrell:

    That's a concern for everybody, every single person. My biggest, biggest fear is that someone of the stranded residents who is waiting will get the virus and die.

    Samoans, Pacific Islanders in general, they live in multigenerational homes because, you know, family is such a huge thing for them.

  •  Laura Fong:

    While Fiti Aina was waiting in Hawaii to go home, he found out that he has enlarged heart, putting him at high risk for complications if he contracts COVID-19.

  • Fiti Aina:

    It's hard for me to go find a job. If I am going to get the virus, it's end game for me.

  • Laura Fong:

    Back in American Samoa, a COVID-19 task force and the local health department have outlined a four-stage repatriation plan, including a 10-day quarantine in Honolulu before the flight home and a 14-day quarantine after arrival.

    Earlier this month, the governor approved a provisional date for January 19th for the first repatriation flight.

    Aina doesn't know if he will be on that flight, or if it will be delayed, but for him and his family, it could not come soon enough.

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