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Doug Robinson: The immigrant's song: Vai Sikahema inspires Tongan youths

Published: Saturday, Oct. 9 2010 10:21 p.m. MDT

Vai Sikahema, a sports anchor for Philadelphia's NBC affiliate, interviews Philadelphia Eagles All-Pro safety Brian Dawkins after a game.

Provided by Vai Sikahema

Second in a three-part series

Thousands of Tongan men and women have migrated to the U.S. since the '60s. At great expense, some leave behind family and friends and the balmy weather of their island home to come to a land of strangers, snow and menial jobs, with no education and no marketable skills or career prospects.

They work as airport baggage handlers, landscapers, furniture movers and concrete finishers.

They make these sacrifices so their children will have more opportunities for education and jobs.

But many of the Tongan youths aren't standing on their parents' shoulders to reach higher. They are passing up educational opportunities and settling for the same menial jobs their parents hold. They are wasting the sacrifices of their parents. It is a recurring theme in Tongan communities. It is a recurring theme in Sikahema's frequent speeches to Tongan groups in Utah.

"Vai is definitely a role model for Polynesians because they see someone who is so successful on and off the football field," says Robert Anae, a BYU assistant football coach and Sikahema's former teammate. "As much as he did in football, he's done more in life."

Sikahema has been a pioneer for his people. First Tongan to win a football scholarship to BYU. First Tongan to play in the National Football League. First Tongan to play in the Pro Bowl.

"I recognize what I've accomplished and what it means to Tongans," he says. "It's frustrating to me that these Tongan kids — the first generation of Tongan Americans — have been afforded every opportunity that American kids are afforded, and they are not taking advantage of it."

Sikahema continues. "I appreciate my life. Every day, I get up thankful. It's impossible to forget the sacrifices my parents made."

The Sikahemas' journey to America was long and difficult. Sione Loni Sikahema and Lupi (Ruby) Potenitila Sikahema left the islands first and settled in Hawaii, leaving their three children with grandparents until they could earn enough money to send for them. They worked in the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu for a year before they sent for Vai, the oldest child. Two and a half years later, they sent for the other children.

During their long separation, the children could not talk to their parents because their Tongan village did not have electricity or phone service. They communicated by letters and packages from Ruby. One of these packages contained a colorful Hawaiian shirt for Vai that his mother made so that he would be easy to find in a crowd when he finally arrived at the airport.

Vai arrived in Hawaii when he was 7, but the reunion was brief. Weeks later, he was forwarded to California and shuttled back and forth between relatives in San Francisco and San Diego for a year and a half while his parents continued to work in Hawaii.

Loni and Ruby finally earned enough money to unite their family in the U.S. Unlike so many of their peers, they decided not to settle in a Tongan community. If they were going to be assimilated, they needed to live among Americans. They settled in Arizona in 1970, moving into a converted garage apartment in Phoenix that felt like a furnace. There was no air conditioning, and the dry heat was new and unbearable for them. They spent much of their time sitting in the shade of a park across the street. They used a fan covered with wet towels to cool the apartment. The family hung sheets from the ceiling to divide the living space into small rooms.

Vai began attending school at age 8. He couldn't speak English, and he never really would catch up with his peers in the classroom. He learned the language by watching TV and talking to friends. While other kids were reading Hardy Boys books, Vai was reading Dick and Jane. He was a natural target for teasing, what with his struggles in class, the strange food he brought to school, his difficulties with the language and his strange name. The results were predictable.

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