Remarks: U.S. Independence Day Celebration in Tonga

Remarks by Helene Tuling

Acting Deputy Chief of Mission, U.S. Embassy Suva 

Deputy Prime Minister, Honorable Speaker of the House, Nobles of the Realm, Ministers of the Crow, High Commissioners, Members of the Diplomatic Corps, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome and thank you for joining us this evening.

While our most visible representation here in Tonga is, of course, the Peace Corp, the breadth of our other activities in Tonga is wide. From cultural and educational exchanges, to capacity building, to a unique program where our U.S. consular officers travel several times a year to Tonga, we are very active here.

Just to name a few examples, the Embassy recently provided law, immigration, and customs enforcement training, focused on securing a nation’s borders and ports of entry. 87 Tongan law enforcement officers participated in this two- day training. In the past year, our American Corner here in Tonga has held 35 events and welcomed approximately 900 Tongan visitors.

The relationship between His Majesty’s Armed Forces and the Nevada National Guard continues to grow through the State Partnership Program. Through that program and all of our defense engagement, we have worked together to raise the profile of women serving in national security roles, recognizing the vital contributions made by women to conflict resolution and effective problem-solving.

Of course, women make vital contributions in other areas as well- and this year, the Embassy provided a grant to a women’s collective to enable increased organic farming yields. We have extensive programs here on climate change and disaster management. Through the Nevada National Guard, we have worked together with His Majesty’s Armed Forces and the National Emergency Management Office to increase resiliency to disasters and improve rapid response capability.

Through, USAID, the development arm of the U.S. government, we have an on-going project with the government of Tonga to implement its Joint National Action Plan for climate change and disaster risk management and are funding three critical positions to support the plan. We have been working to strengthen the resilience of the Tongan people by focusing on water security, disaster preparedness and response, climate finance access, and capacity building of national systems. In partnership with the Tonga National Council of Churches, we have worked in 51 small communities throughout the country, training people in family preparedness planning, early warning, and evacuation. Just last week, we delivered a Business Continuity Planning training program to help businesses in Tonga to address the impacts of extreme weather events and natural disasters. And starting next week, we will conduct an accredited monitoring and evaluation course that will help usher in a new cadre of Tongan professionals qualified in project management, monitoring, and reporting which will accelerate the implementation of your Joint National Action Plan for Climate Change and Disaster Management.

Next year, we are excited about welcoming a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Tonga who will be studying biological solutions for reviving coral reefs after bleaching. As I mentioned, in a unique program, our consular officers travel here several times a year to conduct visa interviews and provide services to U.S. citizens here in Nukualofa. These trips help make consular services more accessible and save those based in Tonga, both the time and cost of traveling to the U.S. Embassy in Fiji.

And finally Peace Corp. Over 1,700 Volunteers have served in Tonga since 1967. Currently, 51 Peace Corps volunteers serve in schools throughout Tonga teaching English. Over the past five years Volunteers have worked in over 100 different schools reaching hundreds of teachers and thousands of students and parents.

We are joined here tonight by the staff of Peace Corps Tonga, as well as some volunteers who will be performing for us later. One familiar face to most of you is Nancy Gehron, our Peace Corp Director here in Tonga.

I would like to take a moment to recognize Nancy, who, as many of you know will be leaving Tonga shortly. Nancy started with Peace Corps as a volunteer in Togo, 36 years ago. So, from Togo to Tonga with a few stops in between. The Kingdom of Tonga will be Nancy’s last full-time assignment with Peace Corps. I know from my personal discussions with Nancy that she has treasured her 3 and a half years here and feels honored to have worked with the tremendous staff of Peace Corps Tonga.

As we all are, Nancy is very grateful for the incredible support of Tongan partners from the Ministry level to the community level. The PC program here has doubled since Nancy’s arrival and strengthened in many key ways. Nancy, thank you for your contributions here in Tonga. I know everyone here joins me in wishing you the best.

To conclude, our Charge, Michael Goldman, extends his regrets as he is not able to be here tonight due to an unexpected family issue. However, we do have a significant presence from our Fiji-based Embassy. I’d like to take a brief moment to introduce them to you.

From our public diplomacy office – Rebecca Archer-Knepper, who is our Public Diplomacy Officer and on a rotational basis shares Acting Deputy Chief of Mission duties with me. Joining Rebecca is Sheenal Sharma. Robbie Reeves is our Consular Chief and with him are two of Tonga’s own – Suli Havea and Selemana Soqe, who also work on Tongan political and economic issues. Thank you Tonga – we are very grateful that these ladies work in our Embassy. You have met our political officer who is serving as our MC tonight, James Bjorkman. He is here with our political specialist – Laisani Qaqanilawa. Aaron Deporter is here representing our Defense Attaches’ office. And finally, I would like to recognize Nicky Daveta, our protocol specialist who, along with Selemana and Suli, is responsible for much of the planning of tonight’s event.

We also have some of our security staff here and, on this note, I would like to thank the Tongan police for its superb support of tonight’s event. Thank you again for joining us this evening to celebrate the United States Independence Day. Please enjoy the evening.