Seasonal workers from Pacific Islands gather to celebrate culture, identity and sport

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For many people, working and living in a different country can be a difficult and isolating experience, especially when your culture thrives off a sense of community.

People from the Pacific Islands have long been a part of the Riverland community, with many travelling far from home to take up seasonal work in the South Australian agricultural region.

However, COVID-19 has made that distance from home seem even further, with workers who were already in Australia before the pandemic hit forced to stay longer than expected.

As well, due to the labour shortage across Australia, 800 people form the Pacific Islands have come to the Riverland and quarantined for two weeks before heading out to work on properties across the region.

Pacific Islander man wearing a dark jumper with the number 6 on it and a cap turned backwards
Seasonal worker Sione Mafi has been working in Australia for more than 18 months due to COVID-19 border closures.(

ABC Rural: Jessica Schremmer

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After initially planning to stay and work for one harvest season, Tongan Sione Mafi has been in Australia for 18 months, having been locked out of his home country.

Four women in islander clothes performing a traditional dance, their arms uplifted
Many workers enjoyed performing traditional dances from their homeland at the Riverland Pasifika Sports Carnival.(

ABC Rural: Jessica Schremmer

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“They only have me in the family to look after them when they get sick, [so] it’s a very big challenge for me to be here.”

“The Tongan government said they are going to open the border maybe next year in March, but we don’t know.”

Empowering seasonal workers

Such difficulties are why Pacific Island Council of South Australia president Tukini Tavui started to search for ways to connect Pacific Islanders across the region and celebrate their culture.

A smiling,  bald Pacific Islander man with a grey beard wearing a green and blue heavily patterned shirt.
President of the Pacific Islands Council of South Australia Tukini Tavui says social gatherings are important for everyone’s wellbeing.(

ABC Rural: Jessica Schremmer

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Mr Tavui and his team landed on an idea for the first Riverland Pasifika Sports Carnival to connect seasonal workers across the region.

The event was attended by more than 800 people in Renmark over the long weekend.

“This is vital, this is important and this is who we are as Pacific Islanders,” Mr Tavui said.

Men in traditional islander dress performing a dance, with rows of cross-legged men behind them
Each nation performed cultural dances and songs before the sports carnival kicked off.(

ABC Rural: Jessica Schremmer

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“It is important for them to be able to do that in a foreign country like Australia.

“Also, for themselves, just to be empowered that they can share their culture and people can appreciate who they are.”

Men dancing at a sports carnival. This mob, however, are not in traditional dress.
Dancing and singing is an intergral part of cuture for people of the Pacific Islands.(

ABC Rural:Jessica Schremmer

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On the day, people from Tonga, Kiribati, Timor Leste, Samoa, Fiji and the Solomon Islands represented their home nations in a range of sports including volleyball, soccer, touch football and basketball.

The event was also attended by local community leaders, including two Country Fire Service volunteers who had helped train firefighters in the Pacific Islands.

Community connections

While a day of sport was the aim of the event, it was punctuated by a number of cultural performances by attendees representing their home nations.

Planned performances of traditional dances and impromptu cultural songs were interspersed throughout the day among the friendly competition.

A woman in a pink shirt with white sleeves and a navy blue scarf standing on a soccer pitch
Feagaiga Solo, from Kiribati, says she doesn’t know when she will be able to return home.(

ABC Rural: Jessica Schremmer

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The event was a welcome one for Feagaiga Solo, from Kiriabati, who plans to stay in Australia for nine months, but is aware travel restrictions may extend her stay to two years.

A single mother, Ms Solo has travelled without her 11-month-old daughter, who is still at home.

Ms Solo said it’s been a challenge to travel and work in Australia, but she needs to provide for her family and coming together with other Pacific Islanders was much needed.

Five women hold up two East Timorese flags as they cheer their team mates
Fans cheering for their team competitors from East Timor.(

ABC Rural: Jessica Schremmer

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“We are so proud to meet other Pacific Islanders. We are so happy to meet different cultures and different people.” Ms Solo said.

She said that dancing and singing were “very important” to the people of Kiribati, who want to keep in touch with their language and culture.

“That’s why the people feel so excited and happy to be here and to represent the Kiribati people,” Ms Solo said.

Mr Tavui said the event had helped reconnect many people with their culture when they needed it most.

A large group of Pacific Islander women sit, crossed-legged on the grass watching the competition
Many enjoyed making new connections with other people from the Pacific Islands.(

ABC Rural: Jessica Schremmer

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“It’s important for them to share that culture, the language, because that represents who they are and their identity,” Mr Tavui said.

“So, we look at somebody and just by looking at them and the way they sing, perhaps, and the way they are dressed up, we can tell this person is from there.

“It’s empowering for them to be able to share who they are and be appreciated in the local community.”



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