From Displacement to Resilience: Climate Migrants Helping Grow Needed Solutions

Kenneth Tang with the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) shares information with residents about plans to turn the new Lincoln Square Park and Recreation Center into a resilience hub in Oakland, California, September 16, 2021. Image: Asian Pacific Environmental Network/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

People from nations highly vulnerable to climate change—like the Marshall Islands and Honduras—are now helping the United States to better prepare for its impacts

David Sherfinski | @dsherfinski | Thomson Reuters Foundation

When Benetick Kabua Maddison moved to the United States from the Marshall Islands aged six, it was partly due to the effects of global warming: flooding had damaged his low-lying Pacific island home and his family wanted better opportunities abroad.

Two decades later, having settled in Springdale in northwest Arkansas—a haven for Marshallese immigrants—Maddison is once more part of a community rocked by wild weather growing more severe as the planet heats up.

The city of about 87,000 people is dealing with extreme cold and heat, flash flooding, and the fallout from a rare, devastating tornado that swept through the area in March.

“The community was not prepared when the tornado hit,” the 27-year-old said, recalling families struggling to deal with the devastation of collapsed roofs and smashed car windows.

“Climate change is something that’s not going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month—it’s already here,” Maddison told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a video call.

From California to New York, parts of the United States that are seeing an influx of climate migrants have started turning to the newly displaced for lessons on how to be more resilient to more frequent disasters fueled by rising temperatures.

Maddison is executive director of the Marshallese Educational Initiative (MEI), a nonprofit seeking to improve emergency response and communication on climate-related issues, among other cultural awareness efforts.

“Part of what we’ve done at MEI is to educate the community, especially young people, about climate change. It’s already impacting our country, our islands,” said Maddison.

Such lessons are being taught nationwide—including in Buffalo, New York, where Asian and African immigrants have brought vertical farming techniques that can better withstand high levels of heat and other climate-related impacts.

“It’s really our immigrants and refugees who are able to grow an incredible amount of food in a 10×10 plot,” said Rahwa Ghirmatzion, executive director of PUSH Buffalo, a social justice advocacy group.

“They’re able to harvest three to four times in a season, and do it using a lot of re-used materials—it’s a sight to behold,” said Ghirmatzion, who was born in Eritrea in 1976 and whose family fled during the civil war.

While many cite political instability as the reason for leaving their countries of origin, Ghirmatzion said climate stresses like heat waves and drought—and ripple effects on food supplies and civil conflict—are another major factor.

Katherine Lee with the Asian Pacific Environmental Organization (APEN) looks back at high school students Alida Phutama (L) and Donovan Putthongvilai (R) as they tour the new RYSE Commons building, which will also serve as a climate resilience hub, in Richmond, California, September 22, 2021. Asian Pacific Environmental Network/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

Unlikely Bonds

Farther south along the U.S. Gulf Coast, the nonprofit Resilience Force has an immigrant-led workforce which responds to extreme weather and disasters by rebuilding homes for people who have been internally displaced by hurricanes or flooding.

Many of its workers are migrants from Honduras who fled after climate-change impacts such as worsening hurricanes and drought also hurt the local economy, said the group’s founder Saket Soni, who hails from New Delhi.

He said their efforts had even managed to shift attitudes among immigrant-skeptic residents in the American South. It has led to “unlikely” bonds between Honduran migrants and people who may never have spoken to an immigrant before, or saw them as a threat or “unwelcome in the community”, Soni added.

Such organizations are operating against a backdrop of growing pressures exacerbating climate-related displacement that only stand to worsen in the future as global temperatures rise.

More than a billion people globally are at risk of being uprooted by 2050 due to natural disasters, which could fuel more migration to developed nations such as the United States, found a 2020 report from the Institute for Economics & Peace.

The Climate Justice Collaborative, an initiative within the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), is among the groups working to make sure immigrant voices are at the forefront of preparing to smooth this kind of upheaval.

Member organizations strive to ensure, for example, that early warning systems are put out in multiple languages and that there is a “just transition” for immigrant workers in the fossil fuel industry, said Stephanie Teatro of the NPNA.

“We’ve seen what is possible when governments and communities see migration as a solution and that we can do extraordinary things to welcome people,” she said, referring to the goodwill towards people fleeing Russia’s war in Ukraine.

APEN youth members Ally Putthongvilai (L), Ashley Phutama (C), and Alida Phutama (R) tour the new RYSE Commons building which will also serve as a climate resilience hub, in Richmond, California, September 22, 2021. Asian Pacific Environmental Network/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

‘They Are The Visionaries’

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, advocates in California are urging public officials to boost funding for so-called “resilience hubs“, which could help prepare localities for climate-related impacts through immigrant-led initiatives.

The approach bolsters respected local organizations, such as a church or community center, to help neighborhoods get ready for crises—hurricanes, heatwaves, pandemics or unrest—as well as to respond and recover from them.

The state has recently allocated at least $100 million for resilience hubs, with strong input from immigrants from Asia and climate justice groups like the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN).

That funding could support the development of 10 to 20 projects statewide to provide, for example, new solar panels and battery storage or emergency response services, proponents say.

It is vital for immigrant and refugee communities “to feel like these places are safe places … that they are the visionaries of the design of what these facilities look like,” said Amee Raval, APEN’s policy and research director.

“And that it’s for them.”

In Arkansas, Marshallese immigrants have settled for decades due to a range of factors, including climate change—but gaps still exist in terms of health equity, housing opportunities, and emergency alert systems during weather-related disasters.

For his part, Maddison plans to eventually head back to the Marshall Islands—after he finishes school—to pursue a career in politics in a place where he believes officials are less likely to look the other way on climate change preparation.

In the meantime, he intends to keep on raising awareness about the issues affecting his community in Arkansas—whether at the “local or national—or even international level.”

“Because these issues are happening to us,” he added.


This article was published previously by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly.

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