Portland’s Tongan community strengthens ties with their homeland after earthquake and tsunami: ‘We never forget where we come from’


Five thousand miles separate the shores of Tonga and the banks of the Willamette River. But on Friday, Portland’s landmarks lit up to honor the unbroken bond between the two communities, even in the wake of a disaster.

The glass spiers of the Oregon Convention Center glowed red and white – the same colors as the Tongan flag now flying above Portland City Hall – as a crowd of 50 gathered at the dusk to watch the lights of the Morrison Bridge turn crimson and alabaster.

A computer glitch delayed the planned lighting of the bridge until later that evening, but Portland’s Tongan community leaders say they’ve won something far more important than the twinkling lights: recognition.

“It’s a great relief to know that we have people around us who really care about us,” said community leader Suliasi Laulaupeaalu. “Not only our little nation, but humanity.”

An undersea volcano eruption triggered tsunami waves that leveled entire islands of Tonga on January 15. But while the death toll was thankfully low, shockwaves destroyed the Pacific island nation’s internet and international communications, leaving members of the Polynesian diaspora with little to do but worry and wait.

Relief efforts have since reached the 169-island archipelago of 100,000 people, which was largely free of COVID-19 because its borders were essentially closed.

Kolini FusituaMark Graves / The Oregonian

“Even though we are not there physically, we have been traumatized from afar because our family is there,” Kolini Fusitua said at the Portland waterfront rally. “Our neighboring countries reached out and supported us. Unfortunately, it came at a price, and that price was COVID.

Despite the challenges Tonga faces, Friday’s event represented a chance for several dozen of the approximately 2,000 Tongans who live in the Portland area to come together and take pride in their community.

Fusitua, who is the Pacific Islander community coordinator for the nonprofit Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization, said he only had to look out his office window on North 81st Avenue. East and Sandy Boulevard to see a retaining wall built by a Tongan stonemason.

And Virginia Vaenuku, a recent graduate of the University of Washington, said the older generation’s work to preserve their heritage and culture inspired her to take a job with Vancouver public schools as a child advocate. chuukese of Micronesian families.

“I returned to Vancouver to serve my community and work with at-risk youth in our communities of color,” she said. “We never forget where we come from.”

As night fell on Friday and thousands of roosting crows joined in the chorus, crowds gathered for several traditional prayers and choir songs – and played South Pacific pop music on a portable speaker .

The kids were riding around on electric scooters, and suddenly the party was in full swing.

“I just want to dance when I see the Tonga flag,” Vai Tautuaa said during a break from the festivities. “I am very happy in my heart.”

Morrison Bridge Lighting for Tonga

Dozens of people gathered at Tom McCall Waterfront Park at dusk on Friday February 18, 2022 to watch the Morrison Bridge light up in support of the Tongan community. The bridge and the Oregon Convention Center were lit up in red and white, the colors of Tonga’s flag. A volcanic eruption caused devastating effects across the Pacific island nation in January.Mark Graves / The Oregonian

—Zane Sparling; [email protected]; 503-319-7083; @pdxzane

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