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Radiation and climate change drive Marshall Islanders to Northwest enclave

Most schools are used to working with children whose native language isn't English. In most of the Northwest and the nation, that means Spanish.

But in Spokane, immigrants from a remote set of South Pacific islands have sent schools scrambling to find translators for a language most of us have never heard of. It's called Marshallese. Turns out,  people from the Marshall Islands are leaving their tropical home for the Northwest in large numbers.

If you want to find the Marshallese community, it turns out the person you should go to is Bernice Ralpho. In her younger days, the 65 year old was a police officer in the Marshall Islands.

Today she's sort of the matriarch of Spokane’s Marshallese population.

"Do you want me to take my shoes off?" asks Jessica. "It’s alright," says Ralpho

Winter boots seemed like a weird thing to be wearing inside. And not just because of the nice carpeting. Ralpho's otherwise standard one-bedroom apartment is decked out in bright paper flowers and travel-brochure worthy pictures from the islands.

"My granddaughter is calling from Honolulu," says Ralpho (speaks in Marshallese).

Bernice has family scattered all over the U.S. She left the Marshall Islands six years ago and is in a wheelchair now. She has serious health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.

She says poor health is common in her home country. It's true, the Marshallese suffer from high rates of cancer and birth defects. Even some of the traditional plants and livestock, for example the pigs, aren't right.

"Everything is change. Some of the pig, they don't grow. They're just only like this," Ralpho exclaims.

Bernice puts her hands about six inches apart.

To understand what's happened to this small cluster of Pacific islands, we have to go back 60 years...

News reel: "...every electronic control device is functioning smoothly. And the cataclysmic moment is here. A dress rehearsal of a possible future."

"There's really no equivalent like what the Marshallese experienced. They essentially experienced nuclear war for 12 straight years," says Holly Barker.

Holly Barker is an anthropologist at the University of Washington who specializes in Marshallese culture. In 1946, she says the U.S. military began using the islands for nuclear tests.

"They were designed to produce as much local fallout as possible so that the U.S. government could have a laboratory where it would essentially understand the effects of radiation on human beings and the environment," says Barker. "They wanted to create a lot of fallout?" asked Jessica. "Purposely, yeah," Barker replies.

By the time the tests ceased, 67 nuclear weapons had been detonated and the land mass of the Marshall Islands was seven square miles smaller.

Fast-forward ahead to the present day, and another man-made disaster is taking its toll, global warming.

The Marshall Islands have a very low elevation, reaching only 32 feet at even the highest point. The rising ocean level is starting to creep in on homes. Some islands are expected to disappear altogether.

But the Marshallese have a kind of escape route. Because of its history with the islands, the United States gives the Marshallese people a unique kind of status afforded to very few others.

They're considered non-immigrants that are free to come and work in the U.S. without a visa, and many are choosing to do that in Spokane.

"We need to prepare the community of Spokane to receive them. Especially the amounts of numbers that we'll be seeing," exclaims Karen Morrison.

Karen Morrison heads Odyssey World International Education Services. It's one of several Spokane-based groups with a strong track record of helping immigrants and refugees settle into the area.

That helped make the Northwest an unlikely destination for Marshallese.

"They're being displaced. And it is increasing. When I first started, maybe saw about 300 Marshallese, now we're seeing upwards of 1,000," says Morrison.

Think of it this way: if you were going to move to another country, you’d probably want to go to a place where you know someone.

On this morning at Rogers High School in Spokane, ESL teacher Cory Johnson is helping Marshallese student Don Joe. He has an essay due for history class on World War II dictators.

"What does that mean?" asked Joe. "Where do you have the word? Do you remember what the word invade means?" asked Johnson. "I heard that one," Joe exclaims. "So invade is where one country goes to another land and takes over," Johnson explains. "Yeaaaah," says Joe.

Spokane schools have hired five Marshallese-speaking tutors in just the last few years to work with the influx of students. Joe's parents sent him to live with an aunt in Spokane, where they hoped he would get a better education.

“It's way different than our island. Like for example, it's big! But when I came here and realized that my parents are counting on me. Yeah, kind of like, I'm going to stay in school and stay out of trouble," says Joe.

Joe wants to be an engineer someday. But there might be a hitch. The Marshallese' visitor status makes it more difficult, and expensive, to go to college. The Marshallese are not U.S. citizens.

As one woman from the Marshallese community put it, they feel "like ghosts". The U.S. still isn't home, but they can’t go back to their old one.

Inland Northwest Correspondent Jessica Robinson reports from the Northwest News Network's bureau in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. From the politics of wolves to mining regulation to small town gay rights movements, Jessica covers the economic, demographic and environmental trends that are shaping places east of the Cascades.