Sunday, June 2, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Islanders Find Utah Isn't Land Of Opportunity


SALT LAKE CITY - Thousands of Pacific Islanders, trading their tropical paradise for a chance at the American dream in Utah, have found only disillusionment in the land of opportunity.

They have found poor jobs, fractured families, youth gangs and an education system not equipped to bridge cultural and language barriers.

"We didn't foresee what was lying ahead of us. We just came quickly, rushing to come to the United States," says Sione Fakahua, pastor of the First Tongan Methodist Church.

"We now understand that it's not easy at all and that little of this culture compares with the easy-going way of life in the islands," Fakahua said.

State and religious leaders have taken few steps to ease the cultural passage for 15,000 to 20,000 Tongans and 3,000 Samoans, a population that doubled in the 1980s.

In the islands, life revolves around tightly knit communities. Houses are built of palm fronds, and food is available from trees and the sea. Tonga is the only kingdom left in the South Pacific, and Samoa continues its tradition of warrior chiefs.

Transplanted to Utah, such cultures don't mesh readily with a predominantly white society, notwithstanding the fact that many share the Mormon faith.

"There is just a lack of cultural sensitivity in Utah," said Randy Wong, a Chinese-Hawaiian working in the state Department of Employment Security. "I think that cultures get lost, and there isn't any group that understands another group. And then we just have a tendency to ignore each other."

Island immigrants flock to Utah in search of economic stability. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has enjoyed rapid growth in the South Pacific since World War II, also is an attraction.

But in Utah, many Pacific Islanders live at or below the poverty level. An estimated 75 percent of the local Tongan community works in unskilled manual labor. Younger Polynesians often do poorly in school, and some turn to gangs for encouragement and security.

Wong said role models are few because not many members of minorities in Utah hold high positions in government or business. Without them, ethnic awareness is slow to make a difference.

"It starts at the very top," Wong said. "The governor has signed proclamations for minority days. But that's where it stops.

"We don't have him personally involved in the activities. It's like, `Here is a token to acknowledge this ethnic day, and now you take it from here.' "

Others say the Mormon Church could do more to help them assimilate.

"There is some disillusionment in the way the faith is practiced in this state," said Edwin Napia, a Maori-American graduate student at the University of Utah. "They teach universal brotherhood, but here sometimes I feel you are looked down upon because you're not white. Maybe they don't recognize that conflict."

Rodney Fakatou, a second counselor in the church's Liberty Stake in Salt Lake City, estimates 60 percent to 70 percent of all Pacific Islanders in Utah are Mormon. The church opened three Tongan wards and one Samoan ward in Salt Lake in the 1980s.

Former Mormon Bishop Phil Uipi, a Tongan-American elected to the Utah House last fall, said religious leaders wield enormous influence over Pacific Islanders and should play a more active role.

"We need to look at the lives of our youth now instead of the life hereafter. We need to be innovative. We just can't continue to sit up at the church office building," Uipi said.

Uipi has become a symbol of success for the community. Pacific Islanders also have held high positions in student government at the University of Utah. Samoans and Tongans excel in college athletics throughout the state.

But community leaders say the gains are minimal given the problems confronting Polynesian minorities.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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