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This Arkansas Radio Station Became a Hub for People From the Marshall Islands

When Juliann Laiso gets homesick for her native Marshall Islands — a string of atolls roughly 6,000 miles away from the mainland United States — she tunes the radio to KMRW, a blend of news, music, and health information.

But the radio station, started in 2015, doesn’t broadcast from Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, or a major city like New York or Washington, D.C. It broadcasts from Springdale, a city of approximately 75,000 in northwest Arkansas that has become a hub of Marshallese community and culture thanks to the thousands of Marshallese residents who now call it home.

Lisa Lajwi, a member of the staff at KMRW 98.9 who previously worked at a radio station in the Marshall Islands. Courtesy of KMRW

“KMRW helps me feel connected to the Marshall Islands in a way that makes me feel like I’m surrounded by the Marshall Islands when the endless music plays,” the 25 year-old Laiso told NBC News. “Knowing that there’s a Marshallese station out here in the United States to listen to makes me feel at ease and less home sick.”

Larry Muller, a retired sailor, told NBC News that he started the station to help inform the public and bring a little bit of the island life to Arkansas. The station helps to connect people and relays important information to the Marshallese community, he added.

He noted that, during a recent mumps outbreak, the Marshallese community was able to learn about the disease and ways to prevent and reduce its spread. A health program provides resources on various topics, including diabetes, cancer, and food care.

“What we do helps the community a lot,” he said, later adding: “This is the only island music and information throughout the U.S.”

Laiso, who moved to Springdale in 2014 in order to be closer to family members, said she enjoys the announcements and news broadcast from the station – whether it’s the organizations helping out the Marshallese community or just announcement of vendors selling plates of food and the price.

Around 12,000 Marshallese call northwest Arkansas home according to April Brown, cofounder and president of the nonprofit Marshallese Educational Initiative, which raises awareness about Marshallese history and culture through language and culture classes. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 6.6 percent of Springdale's population are of Pacific Islander descent.Brown told NBC News that the first Marshallese started arriving in the area to work at a Tyson Foods plant back in the early 1980s. Citizens of the Marshall Islands are able to live and work in the U.S. without a visa because of the Compact of Free Association, which went into effect in 1986.

“Migration to Arkansas really picked up in the late 1990s and continues,” Brown said.

The relationship between the Marshall Islands and the U.S. dates all the way back to 1857, when missionaries from Boston arrived in the remote Pacific atolls, according to Brown.

“The U.S. government became involved in the Marshalls after defeating Japan, who occupied the islands between the world wars,” Brown said. The Marshall Islands then came under U.S. governance as a Strategic Trust Territory of the Pacific under the authority of the United Nations. The U.S. tested nuclear weapons on the islands, for 12 years from 1946 to 1958.

The testing not only exposed people to radiation, but also caused displacement, Brown said.

“The Compact of Free Association, which was signed after the Marshall Islands became independent, allows for Marshallese to travel and work in the U.S., in part to offset the biological, ecological and cultural damage done due to the testing,” she said. “In exchange, the U.S. maintains its military base on Kwajalein.”

KMRW not only connects the Marshallese community in Springdale, Brown said, but helps bridge communities across the U.S. and even in the Marshall Islands.

“Being a trained sailor who navigated the seas, Larry continues to connect the community — this time through the airwaves,” she said.

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