North Star Journey

For more than 20 years Micronesians have made Milan their home

Students play volleyball
Middle and high school students in the Milan Kids Club play volleyball together in the gym at the Milan Youth Center on May 10.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Tuesdays and Fridays are special days for a small group of students from Lac qui Parle Valley Schools near Milan. That’s when the Milan Kids Club is in session at the former Milan Public School building.

Rosalia Iowanes and Justleen Ponun, two teens employed by the program, have set up the volleyball net in the gym. Some students play barefoot. The sport is immensely popular in the Micronesian community.

A teenager ties a volleyball net to a pole
Tenth-grader Justleen Ponun helps rig up a volleyball net during after Milan Kids Club.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Justleen explained the volleyball connection.

“Most of us would say it’s our favorite sport because some of us grew up playing volleyball and yeah, volleyball is also like a favorite sport back in Micronesia,” she said. 

Justleen’s family moved from Micronesia to Milan. However, Justleen was born in Willmar, 43 miles east of town.

Her family is not alone. 

A young boy extends his forearms to hit a volleyball
Twelve-year-old Skenson Ponun passes a volleyball during a friendly game at the Milan Youth Center.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

From Micronesia to Milan

Families have been relocating from the Federated States of Micronesia in the Pacific Ocean to this southwest Minnesota town for more than 20 years. The small but steady stream of Micronesians arriving in this rural town, founded in the 19th Century by Norwegian immigrants, is a big change, explained program director Ann Thompson.

The Micronesian community has boosted Milan’s once declining population and brought a new energy to town, she added. Their presence has boosted the economy and infused youth into an aging populace. 

“Milan went from the oldest community in Chippewa County, oldest average age … a little bit of diversity, but not much to being the youngest community, growing population and really diverse,” Thompson said. “It’s a big change.”

Thompson said longtime residents have realized over time there are benefits to having an immigrant community in Milan: More kids in schools and more kids to clothe and feed.

According to data from the 2020 U.S. Census, Micronesians made up 57 percent of Milan’s population of 428. The town’s numbers peaked in the 1940 census with 624 residents and trended downward until it hit its lowest number, 326, in 2000.

Between 2000 and 2020, Milan’s population grew by 31 percent, according to census data. 

Micronesia is a region of about 2,000 islands in the Pacific Ocean. The region also includes the island nation of the Federated States of Micronesia, which is nearly 7,000 miles away from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Chuuk is one of the country’s four states. Romanum is an island in Chuuk. And almost every person of Micronesian descent living in Milan, is from Romanum.

How did Micronesians know about Milan, whose motto is “Norwegian Capital U.S.A.”? The connection begins with former Milan area resident, Erik Thompson, who served in the Peace Corps in Chuuk.  

A woman smiles as she sits next to a girl
Ann Thompson smiles as she watches Matryn dribble a volleyball during Milan Kids Club.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Thompson continued his Micronesian friendships after he left service. One of them visited Thompson in Milan. Thompson’s friend later decided to settle in Milan with his family. 

Milan is roughly the same size as their island, Romanum, Erik Thompson told MPR News in 2010.

“He thought he wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the size of the place, and that I could speak his language so I could help him make a transition,” Thompson said of one of his friends from Romanum. “But he said he also wanted to bring his family over so kids could get a good education.”

Three people walk past a mural
Irene Eitipei (left) and her 4-year-old son Augustine walk past Bergen’s Prairie Market on Main Street in Milan.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Afterward, others from Romanum moved to Milan as well.

An agreement between Micronesia and the U.S. allows for citizens from both countries to work and travel freely between the two nations. 

Community cohesion can be noisy

Ann Thompson says there were challenges for residents and newcomers.

For example, Micronesians play music in the town park which might be too loud for some residents. They, in turn, may decline to directly ask for the music to be lowered, Thompson said, because of what she calls ‘Minnesota passive aggressiveness.’

“There’s angst,” Thompson said.

A woman sits next to a pallet of rice
Erika Raymond, who was among one of the first waves of immigrants from the Federated States of Micronesia to move to Milan in the early 2000s, sits next to a pallet of bulk rice at the market she co-owns with her husband, Josia Raymond.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Erika Raymond, the co-owner of E and J Micronesian Mart on Main street, says the park is packed every day with Micronesians.

She says community members like to meet up at the park to play volleyball or basketball and they bring speakers to play music.

“Some people just want peace and quiet but we’re there every day making noises, but that’s just how we are,” Raymond said. “We’re a community that loves to hang around everyday. We’re just very family-oriented. Not all of us are related. But if you’re from somewhere and you come in and look, you’d think we’re all related.”

A mural of a Micronesian girl
A Micronesian girl is depicted in a mural on the side of Bergen’s Prairie Market on Main Street in Milan.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

‘That’s what I love about Milan’

In 2007, Ann Thompson said a group of concerned citizens formed a nonprofit called the Greater Milan Initiative. The nonprofit paid $1 to the Lac qui Parle Valley School District for the former K-12 school which had been closed since 1990.

The initiative manages the building and offers programs such as the kids club and a 4-H club. The WIC Clinic and other social service providers come by regularly to serve residents. The school district provides the funding for the kids club, Thompson said.  

“They see this as a kind of an extra support group for the kids, kind of reinforcing what they’re learning at school,” she said. “They have choices. They can play in the gym, or they can do art. We’ve been doing a lot of art exploration. We’re working on this movie. That was their idea.”

Two kids play on large bags of rice
Augustine, 4 (right), and K-lani, 5, snack on sweets while hanging out with their parents in the Milanesian Market in Milan.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Nelisa Raymond is from Romanum. She’s married and has a daughter in high school. She also works for the Appleton Milan Elementary School. Raymond remembers the day she arrived at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

“I came in April. And it’s still cold over here. But there’s no snow on the ground. So I open the door from the airport. It’s like, whoa, it’s cold and it’s sunny,” Raymond said. “So I went back inside and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’”

Erika Raymond said she is torn about returning to Romanum. She wants to return, but she has four children, ages 8 to 15, to think about.

A man holds the door for another man carrying boxes
Junior Kumo carries boxes of round scad and parrotfish out of the Milanesian Market in Milan.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“As I’m getting older and older, I prefer back home. But then I have my kids so that’s why we’re here. I want them to get a good education,” she said. Raymond hopes they finish college and secure good jobs.

Still, there’s something about Milan.

“It’s a peaceful town. It’s not crowded. And you feel safe with your kids roaming around town, and we feel safe,” Raymond said. “Yeah, that’s what I love about Milan.”

Correction (May 29, 2024): An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated who paid Lac qui Parle Valley School District for the school building. The story has been updated.