Pandemic leaves American Samoa residents stranded, homesick

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Makerita Iosefo-Va'a and her husband Shaun Va'a sit together in a park near a relative's home where they are temporarily staying in Tracy, Calif., on Oct. 8, 2020. The couple are homesick for American Samoa. She's among an estimated 600 residents of the U.S. territory who were away when American Samoa's governor closed borders to keep the cluster of Pacific islands free from coronavirus. Vaa and others say they don't want American Samoa to open its borders, but just to bring them home safely. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

PAGO PAGO – Makerita Iosefo Vaʻa hasn't been home for nearly eight months — the longest she's ever been away from American Samoa.

She longs for the breezes that cool island humidity and the ocean sounds and smells that permeate her home in the village of Tula. She also misses the food that's impossible to recreate in Tracy, California, where the coronavirus pandemic has left her and her husband stranded.

“Every time I talk about it, I just cry,” she said.

Vaʻa left the U.S. territory in the Pacific in February with her husband for medical treatment. They planned to fly home in March from San Francisco but decided to postpone after hearing a security worker at the airport had contracted the virus.

Since then, they haven't been able to leave because American Samoa Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga closed the territory on March 13 to protect those on the islands from COVID-19 — and it hasn't reported any cases.

In July, after the order was extended, the Vaʻas stopped bothering to make travel plans and are awaiting word from government officials about when they can come home.

“The interests of the 60,000 residents on-island and protecting their lives outweighs the interest of the 600 or more residents stranded in the United States,” said Iulogologo Joseph Pereira, chairman of the territorial government COVID-19 task force. “As the governor has continuously pointed out, more healthcare facilities are available in Hawaii and mainland states that they can access if they contract the virus.”

Some people from American Samoa were stranded in the midst of family visits or business travel. A Facebook page started by Vaʻa and others to share information has turned into a support system for those who long to go back to American Samoa, said Kueni Aumoeualogo-Hisatake. She went to Honolulu with her husband for their bi-annual medical checkups on the last flight out of the territory on March 26 — not anticipating they would not be able to return.