A Disappearing Homeland

Before too long, Selina Leem’s home may no longer be a home.

Higher and stronger waves are chipping away at the shoreline, homes are falling into the ocean, and graves have been swallowed by water. When people imagine apocalyptic scenes of climate change-- this is what they have in mind.

Even if the world sticks to the agreements made in Paris about carbon emissions, low-lying islands like this could become extinct. That leaves Leem and her community in a difficult position. Should they stay on the Marshall Islands? Begin migration to a new place? What do these decisions mean for their culture and daily lives?

This interview was conducted by The Takeaway’s John Hockenberry. A transcript of their conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

John Hockenberry: What's your key worry about Majuro, your home in the Marshall Islands?

Selina Leem: My island is drowning. I live right next to the water. My island is just disappearing.

When there are storms, what happens?

Selina Leem: When the storms are happening, we usually receive notification through our radio that there's going to be inundation soon and so a lot of people either sleep in a hotel or somewhere farther away from the water. Or they just stay in their house and just get prepared for the waves. And then the waves just crash into these seawalls and break them. The waves destroy the soil and all the crops, and a lot of the homes.

When you were a little girl, you could imagine sitting and watching a storm without worrying that your home would be torn away from its moorings, but now you can't even do that?

Selina Leem: I grew up with these inundations. We receive them every year. But the problem is currently they've just been happening during seasons that they're not supposed to happen. And so when the waves come, they're usually way over the seawalls. It is becoming more frequent, there's this increasing worry that our islands are just gonna disappear.

Have you always been afraid of the water when you were growing up?

Selina Leem: I wasn't as immensely scared as I am feeling nowadays. I think it was three or four years ago that I was in my room. Usually when the waves would come, I would close my curtains because in our culture, it is believed that whenever a wave comes, women are not allowed to see it. Women are not allowed to look at the water because it is believed that the ghost who lives in the water is a mad and if she knows that we're looking at her, she will get even angrier. And so I would always close the curtains. But this one time, I forgot to close it, and I went into my room and I saw the waves going above the seawall that my uncles and my grandfather had built. The waves went over the seawall, and crashed into my grandparents' grave. That was the first time I felt the wave insulted me. Or like, really demeaned me, by just washing over my grandparents' graves and bringing all the rubbish that the ocean has. Seeing that was very upsetting.

And it's not caused by anything you did. It's the result of decisions that people have made about energy and consumption and pollution, thousands and thousands of miles away from you.

Selina Leem: Yes. And that is what makes this thing even harder because we're just a small island. And you question yourself, like what would a big country like that care about a small country with only 72,000 people?

Are all of the people of the island and islands thinking about just heading somewhere else?

Selina Leem: There hasn't really been a plan. But a lot of people have already started moving out. Some have lost their homes due to the waves. But as for myself, I haven't really thought of that. I've just thought of finishing my education and going back home to work.

There are thousands of people around the world who have had to move already. What would you ask them? What would you want to ask someone who's ahead of you? What would you want to know from their experience?

Selina Leem: I’d want to ask them: Is it hard? Because I'm sure you've had close friends or relatives. Or your grandparents or your parents' graves are there. And now that you're gonna move away. How does it feel leaving all that behind?

What do you most wanna hear from them?

Selina Leem: I guess some optimism.

What would you take with you, what would you leave behind?

Selina Leem: I would leave memories. My grandparents. The woman I grew up with. My culture. My home.

And what do you pack with you?

Selina Leem: Memories in my head. Seashells. Handicrafts.


Selina Leem: Yes, photos that my grandpa really made sure to save. It will be very nice to look at them so many years from now on.

It's great to talk to you, and thanks so much for letting us be a part of what's really the hard reality of climate change.

Selina Leem: Thanks so much for letting me speak, thank you.

Heat of the Moment is a long-term project about climate change, led by WBEZ Chicago.