Lahaina's Filipino community 'bracing for the worst' in Maui wildfire recovery efforts
Immigrants hope to recover documents, while others search for loved ones.
The Pasalo-Brilliantes family has lived in Lahaina on Maui for generations. The 27-person household is one of many Filipino families in the historic town that has been displaced by the devastating wildfires.
Every family member evacuated safely, but only with the clothes on their backs, their cars and their phones. Their home has been decimated, and they are now fundraising to rebuild.
“The fire happened so fast, all I have is the two pieces of clothing I’m wearing,” said Ray Pasalo. “But at least we get to see each other's faces.”
Filipinos made up 40% of the Lahaina population, according to the local news outlet Honolulu Civil Beat. Kit Zulueta Furukawa, director of the Maui Filipino Chamber of Commerce, jokingly calls Lahaina "little Manila," since some of the architecture looks and feels like it's from the Philippines, with the heavy presence of the population making its mark on the region.
"Every time I talk about it, I get choked up," Furukawa said. "Those are some images that come to mind. And those are some of the memories that will be lost forever."
The impact of the wildfire’s destruction on the island’s people is yet to be fully understood, as residents and family members around the globe await answers about those who have died and those who are unaccounted for. Only 49 of the 115 people who have been confirmed dead have been identified.
“There's still a lot of missing people. It's still hundreds on the list,” said Furukawa. She believes a lot of the people still missing are Filipino because many of the names she saw on the list are traditionally Filipino, and in the community many people continue to search for their loved ones from Lahaina. "We're just bracing for the worst."
The Jose family, members of the Filipino and larger local community, also lost their home and have relocated with others to a shared relative’s home in central Maui.
The children, ages 9 and 2, are begging to go home – but the fate of their family and home in Lahaina remains uncertain.
“We have family members that are still missing,” said Marife Jose.
“All the historic sites that mean so much to me. Everything. There's so much history in the town; the culture of Lahaina is gone,” she said.
As a former sugar plantation hub and current vacation destination, Lahaina has been the provider of work for Filipinos in the region for generations. And the immigration has not stopped -- Filipinos are one of the fastest growing ethnic minorities in Hawaii, according to research from the University of Hawaii.
"This dates back more than 100 years ago -- the first Filipino plantation workers recruited to work in the plantation fields here in Hawaii," said Furukawa. "From there, families grew and generations and generations of Filipinos have called Hawaii their home."
"There's a slightly higher [Filipino population] than the statewide number in that area that burned because a lot of the worker housing for the hotels is located in that area and a lot of workers in the hotels are Filipinos and also other immigrant groups," said Kevin Block, a Maui immigration lawyer.
Block, alongside other volunteers, has been offering pro bono work to help immigrants who have lost the documents required to work, travel and receive assistance. They are also working to translate and fill out assistance forms for non-English-speaking residents, those who might speak Tagalog or another language, as they fight to get back on their feet.
"A lot of the residences are Filipinos, and there's a large immigrant community as well -- Mexicans, Tongans. Some just arrived in Hawaii to start a new life and immediately they've been affected by the fires," Furukawa added.
Alongside Block, The Legal Clinic, the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, and the Refugee and Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Hawaii's William S. Richardson School of Law are also assisting immigrants in need following the tragedy.
The Pasalo-Brilliantes 27-person clan has since relocated to central Maui, where they are staying with an aunt of Pasalo’s. Multigenerational living arrangements like this are not uncommon in the Filipino community, according to Furukawa. When asked if their temporary housing has room for them all, Pasalo replied: “No, not really.”
But they say being together in the aftermath has kept their spirits up.
“My little cousin, he’s just happy we are all together again,” said cousin John Bernard Flores. “He said if we go back, he wants everything to be the same. Same house, same set-up. But I’m for sure it won’t be the same.”