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Saturday, October 09, 2010

The immigrant's song: Vai Sikahema inspires Tongan youths

Published: Saturday, Oct. 9, 2010 10:21 p.m. MDT
Second in a three-part series
Thousands of Tongan men and women have migrated to the U.S. since the '60s. At great expense, some leave behind family and friends and the balmy weather of their island home to come to a land of strangers, snow and menial jobs, with no education and no marketable skills or career prospects.
They work as airport baggage handlers, landscapers, furniture movers and concrete finishers.
They make these sacrifices so their children will have more opportunities for education and jobs.
But many of the Tongan youths aren't standing on their parents' shoulders to reach higher. They are passing up educational opportunities and settling for the same menial jobs their parents hold. They are wasting the sacrifices of their parents. It is a recurring theme in Tongan communities. It is a recurring theme in Sikahema's frequent speeches to Tongan groups in Utah.
"Vai is definitely a role model for Polynesians because they see someone who is so successful on and off the football field," says Robert Anae, a BYU assistant football coach and Sikahema's former teammate. "As much as he did in football, he's done more in life."
Sikahema has been a pioneer for his people. First Tongan to win a football scholarship to BYU. First Tongan to play in the National Football League. First Tongan to play in the Pro Bowl.
"I recognize what I've accomplished and what it means to Tongans," he says. "It's frustrating to me that these Tongan kids — the first generation of Tongan Americans — have been afforded every opportunity that American kids are afforded, and they are not taking advantage of it."
Sikahema continues. "I appreciate my life. Every day, I get up thankful. It's impossible to forget the sacrifices my parents made."
The Sikahemas' journey to America was long and difficult. Sione Loni Sikahema and Lupi (Ruby) Potenitila Sikahema left the islands first and settled in Hawaii, leaving their three children with grandparents until they could earn enough money to send for them. They worked in the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu for a year before they sent for Vai, the oldest child. Two and a half years later, they sent for the other children.
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