Selina Leem, Marshall Islands, Impolitikal

Selina Leem doesn’t want to lose her country to climate change

Earlier this year, Evelyn met unofficial Marshall Islands ambassador Selina Leem at a Pazifik-Netzwerk meeting close to Nuremberg. Inspired by Selina’s climate change advocacy work, Ev invited her to write about how she came to be living, and attending an international high school, in Germany.

In this firsthand account, Selina talks about how real the threat of climate change is for countries like the Marshall Islands. The small nation, which is located southwest of Hawai’i and home to around 50,000 has become well known for its rising sea levels, climate change advocacy and strong female role models. In 2014 we featured an interview with climate change activist and poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, and we have been tracking the Marshall Islands particularly closely this year due to the election of Dr Hilda Heine as the country’s eighth president – which makes her the first female leader of any independent Pacific Island nation. Hilda, who happens to be Kathy’s mother, was also the first person from the Marshalls to be awarded a PhD. If you’re interested in the intersection between climate change and gender issues, the Marshall Islands is going to be somewhere to keep an eye on.

Now, Selina.

It was during my freshman year (2012) at the Marshall Islands High School, that I came across a paper in the school’s staff room. Always reading random things, I picked up the paper and was first introduced to United World Colleges (UWC), an international organisation with 15 boarding schools all over the world, offering the International Baccalaureate. My interest was piqued at the idea of attending a two-year programme overseas, interacting and living with people from around the world, and spreading the word about my country and the climate-related issues we are facing.

The next day, however, there was an announcement about this programme; I was dismayed to discover that one needed to be 16-18 years old in order to apply. I was only 14 then. Not deterred, I decided to wait two more years until there was another announcement during school assembly. Where before the offer was to attend the UWC school in Canada, this time we got two options: UWC Pearson College in Canada and UWC Robert Bosch College in Germany. I leant more towards Germany because:

a) The school’s focus would be on sustainability and I thought, what better place to advocate for my country than a school like that?
b) The school would be in Freiburg, the so-called greenest city in the world
c) It was a new school and it would be such an amazing experience to be part of the founding class

Thinking things through, knowing that I would have to repeat my junior year as the programme only offers the last two years of high school and I was already on my second to last year of high school in the Marshall Islands, I applied. And I got in.

What also caught my attention about UWC was its focus on peace-building through education. They are able to do this by bringing in students from all over the world to live together on campus or, as we call it, a community-and-study-together. Right now there are 204 of us in my school from 88 different countries. I live with three other women my age. During my first year, I shared a room with a German, an Afghan and someone from Senegal. This year, I am sharing my room with a German, a Dane and an Armenian. At this age, and as such a diverse community, we all develop an intercultural understanding, celebrate differences and challenge ourselves personally.

In such a setting, I share stories and experiences from back home in the Marshall Islands. I tell my friends about life in the Islands, about the food, about the water, about the people, internal conflicts and climate change. These are the small things I do in the hope that everyone leaves with a bit of the Marshall Islands in their mind, remaining conscious of us in that almost forgotten part of the world when they take actions that might one way or another impact us.

On one occasion, my Environmental Systems and Societies teacher asked me to speak at an event the school was having, called Special Focus Day: Sustainability. I would share a testimony of climate change in my country. I showed everyone a picture of me walking through water in the Islands after another round of flooding. I told them about a grandma who was sitting and looking at the water and asking, What is wrong? This has never happened before. What is going on? I shared how people lost their homes. I shared the fear we have of losing our home, of the possibility of having to move to unfamiliar territory.

From that day on, my role as an advocate for my country was solidified. I attended talks and events related to climate change and, when possible or given the chance, I would share a testimony. Last year, I was privileged to attend (climate conference) COP21 as part of the Marshallese delegation. Prior to the ending of COP21, our then-Foreign Minister Tony deBrum gave his microphone to me so I could make the closing statement for our country. I shared a story often told by my grandpa whenever he would try to reprimand me into being a good child by saying that God does not allow ill-mannered children into his kingdom, and that he would send the waves and then our islands would be no more. In my speech I said, It dawned on me as I would stand on that one road on Majuro that on my left is water, and on my right is water. I am surrounded by water.

I ended my speech by saying, This agreement should be the turning point in our story, a turning point for all of us. As a young woman and speaking in such a setting and to a wide audience, I hope to empower the role of women more in many societies around the world. Growing up in the Marshall Islands, even with it being a matrilineal society, you are still oppressed due to your sex. The inequality between men and women is still great and this often leads to severe mistreatment of women.

A family member once said to me, Selina, your husband will beat you up and throw you out because you do not know how to cook. This statement really angered me, for it was expected that I be the one responsible for all the household duties. Of course, growing up in a society where a woman’s being is based solely in the house, this was to be expected – but I never did, and never liked being oppressed. In retaliation, I refused any attempt to involve me working in the kitchen, especially cooking. I said, I want equality between my husband and I. And I will not put up with a husband’s sexist attitude towards me. An individual should never be repressed and put down because of their sex or their gender, or any other reason.

It is my perhaps too-idealistic hope that my islands are saved and that gender equality can be attained one day. That the oppressed could be elevated from their repressed state. That, maybe not in this age but later on, there would be peace. I am too idealistic in so many ways but at least I still have hope. Small actions strengthen my hope, that the world is not as bad as we often think.

Selina Neirok Leem is a small island girl with big dreams from the Republic of the Marshall Islands. She is currently attending UWC Robert Bosch College in Freiburg, Germany, where she is completing the International Baccalaureate Diploma.

Evelyn Marsters has a PhD in Development Studies from the University of Auckland (NZ) and is currently based in Berlin. Her focus is global health and migration, and she is Deputy Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Evelyn.