The Marshall Islands from above. Credit: Bermuda Mike/flickr
Surrounded by 750,000 square miles of ocean, the low-lying Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is emblematic of the threat climate change poses to small island nations.This Micronesian country of coral atolls faces worsening droughts, tropical storms, coral bleaching, coastal inundation and flooding – all exacerbated by rising temperatures and sea levels.
In the face of such an existential threat, the country has also seen a mass exodus of its inhabitants: exact numbers are unclear, but anything between one-fifth and one-third of the population has migrated visa-free to places such as Hawaii, the Pacific north-west and other parts of the U.S. under an agreement called the Compact of Free Association. North-west Arkansas alone saw an increase of nearly 300 percent in its Marshallese population between 2000 and 2010.
Some young Marshallese, however, are choosing to return after years living abroad, drawn back by the desire to help their homeland confront its challenges.
Some are attracted by generous education grants: Marshallese students receive loans for overseas education that are converted to grants when students return to the country to work in the public or private sector for one year of each two years of support.
That’s what brought back 26-year-old Yoshiko Capelle and her husband Jesse, 28, after four years study political science at the University of Hawaii. Jesse said returning to the capital Majuro with their two young children has been “bitter-sweet”.
Majuro’s crowded conditions and eroding coastlines required some getting used to, but a network of family support and world-class fishing and diving made their return easier, he said.
When Jamal Reimers, 39, moved to the U.S. in 1997, the Marshall Islands were gripped by drought. After years living in Oregon, Arkansas and Idaho, Reimers returned to Majuro in 2015 with his two oldest children; his wife and two youngest remain in Idaho.
“I knew climate change had impacted my land but came back regardless,”