New Marshallese nonprofit aims to bolster community health through Covid vaccine clinics

Mark Babson, second from left, and Lowell Alit, right, co-founders of the Marshallese American Network for Interacting Together, pose with Oregon Health Authority’s vaccination team at a Nov. 13 clinic in La Grande (Courtesy/MANIT)

The President of the Marshall Islands is making a guest appearance in Salem Saturday.

David Kabua won’t be physically in the city, but he’s a featured virtual speaker at a clinic intended to get more Pacific Islanders in the area vaccinated against Covid.

The event runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dec. 4 in the Willamette Room at the Salem Convention Center. It’s put on by the Keizer-based Marshallese American Network for Interacting Together, a nonprofit organization focused on aiding Marshallese people and sharing history and culture.

Lowell Alik, chair of the MANIT board, helped found the organization in August. He lives in Keizer, having moved to the area five years ago after serving as director of the environment in the Marshall Islands.

The word manit means “custom” or “tradition” in Marshallese, and the nonprofit aims to help Islanders who move to the United States navigate life here, put on cultural events, promote health in the Islander community and educate people about the history of nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, according to its website.

Alik said they’ve been hosting vaccine clinics intended for Pacific Islanders for several weeks, with two previous events in Tigard and one in La Grande, which has a substantial Islander population at Eastern Oregon University.

“We’ve tried to be consistent, trying to host events every weekend so we can try to get out to our people,” he said.

Pacific Islanders have had the highest rate of Covid infection of any racial or ethnic group in Oregon since early in the pandemic.

“There certainly is quite a bit of hesitancy,” said Mark Babson, MANIT’s CEO and co-founder.

Alik said false information about vaccines in Islander languages is a challenge, as local Marshallese residents often get news and information through social media.

Many Marshallese people feel they were used as experimental subjects during the U.S. nuclear testing program, Alik said. The U.S. government detonated 67 nuclear bombs in the island nation between 1946 and 1958, spreading fallout across the island.

That can lead some to mistrust in vaccines promoted by the federal government.

But seeing community leaders and others they trust get vaccinated is persuasive.

“If they see somebody influential take part in it they’ll also take part in it,” he said. The group has been going door-to-door to let people know about the clinic.

Saturday’s event will feature Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett, who will receive his booster Covid vaccine.

In addition to President Kabua, other Marshallese dignitaries will speak via Zoom, including Marshall Islands Ambassador to the United States Gerald Zackios.

Alik said the clinic hopes to vaccinate 100 people and will have Covid vaccines available for both adults and children, as well as adult booster shots.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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