Ilalio Polevia and his daughter Rita were set to go home to American Samoa in March, but their flight was canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic and they’ve been stranded in Hawaii ever since.
Polevia, 48, was worried that he and his 16-year-old daughter may be homeless in an unfamiliar place with no family as a safety net. He tried two times to book a flight through Hawaiian Airlines, only for the flights to be canceled.
Polevia and his daughter can’t return because American Samoa sealed itself off to prevent the spread of COVID-19. American Samoa — the U.S. territory about 1,600 miles from New Zealand and 2,200 miles from Hawaii — has not reported a single case of COVID-19.
American Samoa is under a public health emergency and state of emergency order implemented by Gov. Lolo Moliga. All flights to the country from both Hawaii and (Western) Samoa remain suspended. What’s allowed within the territory’s border is a cargo flight with medical supplies and food it receives once a week from Hawaii.
All Hawaiian Airlines flights will be suspended for an additional 30 days, with reconsideration slated for Aug.1.
About two days after Polevia and his daughter landed in Honolulu, they were introduced to Jessica Lani Rich, president and CEO of Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii.
“My first impression when I first met them is that they seem lost, and they were kind and gentle souls,” Rich said. “What touched me the most is that they had desserts from Washington, and Rita wanted me to have some. As little as they had, for Rita to want to give me a gift of chocolate, it was just the gesture of kindness, thoughtfulness and gratitude. They’re just really nice people who don’t deserve to be in this situation.”
The Visitor Aloha Society has assisted travelers with flights back home during the pandemic, but the Polevia family’s situation is unique.
Rich has been working on getting an exemption from the governor of American Samoa so the Polevias can go home. The need became greater when two family members died last week.
“It’s very hard to think about it because the thing is we can’t go,” Polevia said, noting that his daughter was heartbroken that her grandfather died. “It’s really hard for us because in our culture we gotta be there to attend the funeral, but there’s nothing me and my daughter can do. We’re stuck here in Hawaii.”
Polevia and his daughter took COVID-19 tests about two weeks ago to prove they’re safe to go home. However, there had been issues with the American Samoa governor’s office.
In an email Rich sent to the American Samoa governor’s office on Tuesday, the response revealed that the Polevias might have to wait a little bit longer.
“Let me first thank you and your organization for coming to the aid of our residents stranded in Hawaii,” said the email replying to Rich. “Please know that our hearts go out to all our residents stranded in the Aloha State of Hawaii. But all of our sacrifices will be for naught if we find ourselves in an outbreak which will automatically overwhelm our health care system. We don’t want to appear heartless but granting an exemption will cause havoc for us. I will bring the issue to the governor’s attention and obtain his decision on this request. But given similar requests presented in the past, I would venture to say that the decision will not be favorable. Our office in Hawaii would gladly find a Samoan family in Hawaii to host the father and his daughter.”
So the Polevias are stuck.
“I still have faith,” Ilalio Polevia said. “We will accept whatever answer he (the American Samoa governor) will give us, but we don’t want to stay here all the way to December.”
During their four months in Hawaii, the Polevias have been bouncing around from hotels to apartments to keep a roof over their heads temporarily with the help of VASH grants, funding their groceries and cellphone bills.
Currently in a temporary home in Manoa, Ilalio Polevia said VASH has already helped them so much.
“I don’t want them to suffer with us because they got their own families to take care of,” he said. “In our culture it’s rude accepting all of those things without something to give back to them.”
But the Polevias bonded with the people at VASH within the four months. Ilalio said Rich was like a mom to him because “she doesn’t take no for an answer.” And Rich comfortably calls Ilalio Polevia by his nickname, Lio.
Polevia never expected to be in this predicament with his daughter.
The Polevias originally left American Samoa for Washington in December. Polevia was working different jobs in Washington to save enough money for Rita to attend high school and move the entire family, including Rita’s five siblings, to the mainland.
Despite their predicament, the Polevias remain optimistic with one message to their family: “We send our love and hope God will provide an answer for us. If we get to go back home, we’ll see you guys over there, and we’re OK.”