Point Marion embraces Fiji immigrants, their traditions

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POINT MARION, Pa. (AP) — Maraia Gonelevu traveled halfway around the world — about 7,600 miles — from the South Pacific nation of Fiji to the tiny riverside town of Point Marion in Fayette County to find a place she could call home.

Three years ago, work in the oil and gas fields of western Pennsylvania drew Gonelevu and about 150 other Fijians, by way of California, to the town of 1,100 at the confluence of the Monongahela and Cheat rivers, literally a stone's throw from the West Virginia border.

Though everything there was different — from the weather to how they cooked foods — the prospect of good jobs appealed to these immigrants who left an island nation where 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, then found themselves stalled in jobs in the personal care industry in California.

What she didn't know was how much the people of this little town would embrace her and the others from a place so foreign that some of the townspeople could not even locate Fiji on a map.

Faith and tradition

The story begins at Point Marion United Methodist Church, where it was only natural that Gonelevu and the others would gravitate after landing in town. About 40 percent of Fijians follow the Methodist faith introduced by missionaries 180 years ago.

Gonelevu worked for the United Methodist Church in California when word of well-paying jobs in Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale fields filtered back to her community on the West Coast.

After deciding to move east, she went online to look for a town with a church. Point Marion popped up.

"Point Marion really opened its doors to us," said Gonelevu, as she shared Fiji's Christmas customs with members of a Tuesday night Bible study group.

At a time when there is talk about closing the nation's borders to immigrants, Gonelevu speaks passionately about how those in her group were welcomed to Point Marion.

"We have different skin colors and a different language, and (the church) opened their doors to us to allow us to worship here in our own language," Gonelevu said.

Particularly at this time of year, faith and tradition are important, she said.

In Fiji, Christmas is all about food, faith and family.

For Gonelevu, 46, who became the unofficial matriarch for islanders scattered in and around Point Marion, her family has grown to include not only her husband and daughter, Soko, 14, but members of her church.

Sharing customs

Once she settled in, it didn't take long for Gonelevu to love her new life.

She had become an American citizen, and once in Point Marion, she found a job in the human relations department at Ruby Memorial Hospital, just across the state line in Morgantown, W.Va.

Still, there are times when memories of her island home tug at her heart.

She and her friend Titi Vatu told the women at the Bible study that when Christmas draws near and the temperatures plummet, they pine for the tropical climate they left behind.

They also long for the food. In Fiji, food is cooked outside in a lovo, or stone-lined pit.

"We cook it underground. We prepared it the night before," Vatu explains.

One man from Fiji built a lovo at his Point Marion home, giving some of the locals the treat of tasting pork or chicken and root vegetables cooked island-style.

In Fiji, holiday meals draw extended families and go on and on — like the church services that last for three hours every night from Christmas Eve until New Year's Eve. There are three services on Christmas Day, and attendance at all three is mandatory.

"Everyone must go. Life on the islands revolves around the church," Gonelevu said.

That elicited laughter from members of the Bible class who could only imagine the protests such a schedule would draw at their homes.

"On Christmas Eve, we go caroling in full white dresses and long skirts. We don't do Christmas trees or gifts. The food is the main thing. And the dancing," Gonelevu said.

Caring neighbors

Pastor Beverly Roscoe said the Fiji island families are a tremendous addition to the community and the church, which holds Fijian language services once a month. Though many in Fiji, an archipelago of more than 300 islands, speak English, there is a Fijian language that most residents speak.

Last summer, when the president of the Methodist Church in Fiji came to the United States for an international conference, he and his wife made a side trip to Point Marion.

"It felt like our father and mother came to visit the children," Gonelevu said.

Those "children" have become an integral part of life in the town, Roscoe said. It's not unusual for someone walking down the street to hear one of them yell a friendly hello from a porch or window.

Karen Smyth, Vatu's landlord and neighbor, said the gregarious woman with an infectious smile and soft voice has become a good friend.

"It's amazing how they take care of one another and the community," Roscoe said.

The Fijians have adopted the pastor's shy daughter, Maria, 25, who has autism. She giggled and blushed when Vatu came to greet her at Bible study.

"Hello, princess," Vatu said, waving.

"They call her the Princess of Point Marion," Roscoe said.

'Feels like home'

Roscoe worried about the Fijians when work in the shale fields began to wane about a year ago. First, the long hours and overtime pay disappeared; layoffs followed.

"I reached out and asked (the Fijians), 'What is going to become of your community?' and they said they felt at home here and liked it," Roscoe recalled.

So Roscoe and her parishioners joined to help the islanders create resumés on a computer and printer at the church.

Gonelevu persuaded members of the community to participate in a job fair at Ruby Memorial.

The islanders scored some successes there. And more recently there have been some callbacks to the shale fields.

Could the river town finally be home for this latest wave of immigrants?

Gonelevu thinks so.

"Point Marion, in the middle of nowhere, really opened its doors to us. It feels like home."





Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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