Marshall Islands teen makes Martha’s Vineyard her new home

Fifteen-year old Yolani Korba, a native of Ennubirr island in the Marshall Islands, is seldom without her prized ukulele. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

A chance meeting last November with a student from Vineyard Haven has led to a new life on Martha’s Vineyard for Yolani Korab, a 15-year-old from Ennubirr, a small island in the Kwajalein Atoll of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Last month, thanks to the generosity of a Vineyard Haven family, Yolani left Ennubirr for the opportunity to attend high school at the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School (MVPCS) this fall.

On Monday she visited The Times office to talk about her experience so far. She was accompanied by Lara O’Brien, who is serving as Yolani’s legal guardian with her husband Charles Robinson, and their 11-year-old daughter Francesca.

Yolani arrived carrying her most prized possession, a ukulele made of dark, rich-colored wood. She said she learned to play it a few years ago from others in her community.

“It’s a big connection to home for her,” Ms. O’Brien said. Yolani has played and sung songs often at the Robinsons’ home since she arrived on June 23.

The petite teenager with expressive brown eyes and a warm smile wore a colorful black, magenta and aqua print, knit fabric, knee-length, shift-style dress. She said it is called a “Guam,” named after the country where it comes from. Yolani owns several, which Francesca noted also serve her as multi-purpose garments for sleepwear and swimwear.

Multiple soft plastic, bright colored bracelets with slogans printed in her native language adorned Yolani’s wrists and ankles. She pointed to one that she said translates to “Family First.” Another needed no explanation: “Nike.”

When asked what made her want to come to America, Yolani answered without hesitation, “Education.” She already has a goal to become a nurse.

“That’s her driving focus, and we think she’s so brave and so courageous to have done what she did to get here, which was huge,” Ms. O’Brien said.

A tale of two islands

Yolani’s journey to an island more than 7,000 miles by air from her own was sparked by a visit to her school last November by the Robinsons’ 13-year-old son, Cathal, a student at Tisbury School. He and his dad, along with his grandmother, Patricia Robinson of Littleton, made a trip to Ennubirr over Thanksgiving vacation to visit his aunt, Anne Robinson. She was working as a senior environmental scientist in the Marshall Islands with San Juan Construction Company of Colorado under a U.S. Army contract.

Cathal and his family members visited the local school, where they met teacher Stefanie Stretch and her multi-age class, including eighth-grader Yolani. Ms. Stretch, a 25-year-old from Philadelphia, worked as a volunteer for WorldTeach, a non-profit, non-governmental organization that places volunteers in schools in developing countries that request educational assistance. Cathal chatted with Yolani’s class, who speak English as a second language, and spent the afternoon playing baseball with them.

Yolani’s school only goes up to eighth grade. However, Ms. Stretch had recognized that Yolani was a good student that would benefit from further education.

Students who want to attend high school must travel to Ebeye, a larger island. It takes an hour to get from Ennubirr to Ebeye by plane, which is very expensive, or seven hours by boat, which makes a daily commute impossible, Yolani told The Times. Students from her island that attend high school on Ebeye must live there.

At the time of the Robinsons’ visit, Ms. Stretch had already started looking for someone to sponsor Yolani to go to school in the United States.

“It was like a lining up of the stars,” Ms. O’Brien said. “When Stefanie mentioned it to my son and husband, he said we might be able to take it on, and slowly over the next several months it came about.”

Ms. O’Brien and her husband talked things over in December and agreed they would sponsor Yolani, which involved her mother signing papers to allow them to be her legal guardians.

Getting here

The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is located in the Pacific Ocean, just north of the equator. Geographically, it is part of the larger island group of Micronesia, which includes 1,156 individual islands and islets, according to Wikipedia sources.

The Marshall Islands achieved self-government in 1979 and full sovereignty in 1986, under a Compact of Free Association with the U.S. The Compact provided for aid and U.S. defense of the islands in exchange for continued U.S. military use of the missile testing range at Kwajalein Atoll.

“Because of the arrangement with the United States and the Marshall Islands, anyone coming from there has non-immigrant status, so there was no major bureaucratic process we had to go through,” Ms. O’Brien said.

By March Yolani had a passport and the necessary papers signed. Ms. Stretch was leaving in June to return to Philadelphia, so she made plans to travel with Yolani and had their tickets and paperwork ready by the end of the school year. Yolani graduated at the top of her class of 15.

Ms. O’Brien met the two of them for the first time when they stepped off the ferry in Oak Bluffs on June 23. She was by herself because Mr. Robinson, Cathal, Francesca, and their youngest child, Grace, age 8, were traveling off-Island.

“I didn’t know what to expect, really,” Ms. O’Brien said. “I was in for an absolutely delightful surprise.”

Once home in Vineyard Haven, she asked what Yolani did on a typical Saturday. The teen said she usually gets up around mid-day, eats, plays soccer and volleyball until about 9 pm, eats an evening meal, and then sometimes watches a movie.

That night the two of them discovered they had a favorite movie in common, “Mama Mia.” Ms. O’Brien said she plans to take Yolani to see the play on Broadway in the future.

Yolani smiles and laughs often, and gives a lot of hugs, according to her new family members.

“She’s very happy and very positive,” Ms. O’Brien said. “She’s brought a lot of love and light into the house. She’s making us laugh more.”

Since leaving home, Yolani’s life has been filled with many “firsts,” including a seven-hour plane ride with Ms. Stretch to Philadelphia, a car trip to Woods Hole, a ferry crossing, and the sight of cows and horses.

Yolani already talks like a Vineyarder, Ms. O’Brien noted with a laugh. “When she gets to Five Corners now, she says, ‘Oh, the traffic.'”

Yolani has been open to new foods and especially loves popcorn and ketchup, which she puts on everything, Francesca said. Naturally athletic, Yolani recently tried ice-skating for the first time and caught on in 10 minutes. “I’ve been trying for like three years, and I still can’t skate,” Francesca said enviously.

Yolani has already discovered Facebook and posted a picture on Ms. O’Brien’s page. She also figured out how to operate a cell phone, although she can’t call home because there is no phone service. Yolani said her mother and grandfather have called her, which involved them making a trip to Ebeye to do so.

The oldest of five, Yolani left behind three brothers and one sister to live with the Robinsons for four years.

“Yolani and I talked, and she knows that everything is up to her now, whatever she wants is possible,” Ms. O’Brien said. “There are no failures; everything’s open. If it gets too difficult and she misses her family, she can go see them again, and stay or come back.”

Ms. O’Brien has already given Yolani a few tips to help with bouts of homesickness, gleaned from her own experiences when she left home in Ireland to come to the United States.

“I think watching you grow here is going to be great for a lot of people, Yolani,” Ms. O’Brien told her.

Last Tuesday Yolani was scheduled to start some summer instruction at the Charter School and also planned to sign up for soccer. In the fall Francesca will join her at the Charter School in the sixth-grade and Grace in second. Cathal will be a freshman at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.

Mr. Robinson is a self-employed environmental, health and safety engineer and works out of an office in Vineyard Haven. Ms. O’Brien is a stay at home mother and writer. She plans to independently publish a novel she wrote for middle-school age children, “Chesca and the Spirit of Grace,” in the fall.