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

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 from the Pacific Islands have come to the Riverland and quarantined for two weeks before heading out to work on properties across the region.

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.

"Sometimes living here, my mum and dad call me. They get sick and have to go to hospital and there is no one to look after them, " Mr Mafi said.

"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.

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.

"We gather, we connect, we talk, we have church together, we eat together, we dance and so that is part of our identity and that's part of who we are.

"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."

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.

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.

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

"The dances and the singing mean a lot to us."

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.

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

"It's part of their culture that they value, recognising different dances, different songs, different sounds and the costumes. They all speak their language, they communicate.

"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."