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Deported: An interview with Sione Ngaue in the Kingdom of Tonga

Words, photos, and interview by Todd Henry.

Ever since my first visit to Tonga in 2007, I have noticed an ever growing population of American accented and often heavily tattooed residents that appear to have just arrived in the islands from places such as inner-city Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, or Dallas.  In fact, these places are where many of them actually did come from before being sent back to Tonga as the result of their own criminal convictions.  These deportees make up a subculture of sorts within Tongan society, and the way of life they grew accustomed to in the United States, or other large industrialised nations, is in stark contrast to the way of life that is customary in the islands.  The vast majority of deportees that I have met in Tonga were deported from the US, and while I have heard about some who were deported from places such as New Zealand or Australia, I have yet to meet them face to face.  The fact that so many have been deported from the US when compared to other locations where large populations of the Tongan diaspora reside is both compelling and concerning at the same time.

Despite being born in Tonga, the deportees live almost as if they are exiles in their own land.  Many were raised in the US from a very young age after emigrating with their parents or other family members, and they may not have any recollection of life in Tonga before moving abroad.  Many of the deportees identify as being American, which they are in terms of their overall appearance and conduct, but not in terms of legality.  Their chances of ever being permitted back into the US are very slim, and those who realise this are generally able to at least partially integrate back into Tongan society through learning the language, culture, and utilising existing family connections.  Other deportees, however, choose to continue on the very path that got them sent back to Tonga in the first place, and inevitably find themselves in and out of the Tongan prison system as a result.

On my most recent trip to Tonga I met a man named Sione Ngaue.  He is an American deportee who now resides on his family land in the village of Nukunuku on the island of Tongatapu.  Despite his history, Sione is an example of a deportee success story.  He has managed to start a new family back in Tonga, and he works as a freelance artist and tattooer, specialising in traditional Tongan designs.

I cycled out to Nukunuku from Nuku’alofa one afternoon to visit Sione in his traditional Tongan fale, which is one of the few left standing in Tonga. We talked at length about his own personal experience of being deported from the US, and about his new life in the Kingdom of Tonga.

The following is a transcript of our conversation recorded on July 14th, 2015:

 

Todd: What is your name and when did you get deported back to Tonga from the United States?

Sione: My name is Sione Kihe Kai Ngaue, and I got deported from America to Tonga in 2008.

 

Do you want to talk about why you got deported?  

There were several things that led up to it, but in the end it was vehicular manslaughter.

 

What was the deportation process itself like? How did you first find out that you were going to be deported?

You usually know that you are going to be deported when you are like a year into the system, your prison term you pretty much know the warrants you have and things like that, you know you have an INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) hold real early. So when you are doing your time you know that you’re going to get deported.

 

So you serve the whole sentence and then you go?

That’s the way it is. Everybody who gets deported has to serve their time in America before they are deported.

 

How does the process of actually being deported go, do officials actually escort you?

Yes, you get out of prison and when you come out the gates you have INS officers waiting for you, you know, with cuffs again. So you come out of cuffs, to get put on cuffs. You know, they take the state cuffs off, and the feds put their cuffs on you and put you in their bus. So you go through the process all over again with the INS, but the one thing good about INS is that you know the longest you’re going to be there is three months and you will be sent home.

 

So do they fly with you on the plane?

They have to escort you, they make sure. The judge tells you, “you will be escorted”. Especially if you have a heavy record. Some have a lesser record only get escorted by one (INS official), and some will even get escorted by three. I was escorted by two, my older brother was escorted by three.

 

When you land in the destination airport, do they just take the handcuffs off of you and you go?

There is no cuffs on the plane, it’s against federal law and international law. You just give them your word and they’re like “I’m taking you home”, if you try anything you will go back to prison in the US and you will never get out. Behave and you will go home.

 

So when you land in Tonga, then do they have to release you over to the Tongan police?

No, if I wanted to I could have just walked off but I hung around the airport immigration for a minute and the guy told me that he saw me get off with those guys. Actually when we went through New Zealand they (the INS officials) bought me duty-free two bottles of whiskey and two cartons of cigarettes. Them guys, they were happy that I was a good guy, you know? I was happy to go home.

 

So did you have any family in Tonga when you arrived back after being deported?

I didn’t have a visitor for the thirteen and a half years I served, so I didn’t let anybody know that I was getting deported. I got out of the airport and I walked all the way home, my Mom was here, and my brother but they didn’t know. It was just all of a sudden, and here I am.

 

How old were you when you originally left Tonga for the US?

I left when I was four.

 

So in your mind you were American?

Yes.

 

What was it like essentially being an American by all accounts minus the legal side of things, and then having to integrate back into Tongan society? Was it a hard transition?

It wasn’t as hard for me as it is for some other deportees because I had family here already. I can speak for some of my deportee brothers and sisters who get sent down here, and who don’t have family. They have a harder transition. I had family here at the time when I got here.

 

Did you speak the Tongan language at that time?

Very little, very little. I could pass, just barely make it through. It wasn’t until I had been here for like six years that my Tongan really evolved.

 

Do you think that some of the deportees who are sent back try to continue with the gang lifestyle in Tonga that they left behind in the US?

Yes, a lot of them. Dozens. And they are now in the Tongan prison system, you know. Right out of the US system, and they didn’t learn. Coming with the same lifestyle from the US to Tonga, you can’t do that. Tonga is laid back slow man, you gotta go with it. You gotta go slow here.

 

How many deportees from the US would you estimate are here in Tonga?

Man…hundreds. I think there are over 400. I don’t think it’s reached the thousands, but when I was here there was like 300 or 400 from the US alone. That was six years ago.

 

Is there a reintegration program, or other support network for deportees when they arrive back in Tonga?

No, the worst part is that the ones that come from America, out of that system and they do long terms, you know ten years, 15 years. And they were taking some kind of psychological medication and then they sent them here to Tonga without it. When I came to Tonga, all I had was a picture ID, a passport. It was a piece of paper, that was my passport they brought me with. So I didn’t have any kind of medications or anything. A lot of these deportees, they’ve been on medication for all their lives and they get down here and just kind of let loose and that’s where they roam around going crazy. Tongan society ain’t gonna help them too much. People here won’t know what’s wrong with them to help them.

 

With all the deportees coming from the US who have essentially no support network in Tonga, are they essentially reforming the same gangs here?

It’s basically not like that anymore, I think it’s more like a of a single-man game. You know, you come down here, you start your little crew of three or four people and you do whatever you do to survive. Like I said before, they haven’t figured it out so a majority of them are in Tolitoli prison now.

 

I have been seeing TCG (Tongan Crips Gang) graffiti around, is that something that is currently active here?

It is, it is active in Tonga, but they really don’t know what they meaning of TCG is. You know, a lot of the local kids are getting involved in the painting and stuff on the wall but they don’t know the concept behind it for real. That’s the good part.

 

If you were given the opportunity, would you go back to the US tomorrow?

No, I wouldn’t. I would never go to the US, never again in my life do I want to see the US. I’m not angry, and I don’t have anything bad to say about it. I am the pilot of my own plane, you know. I have lived it, and I know America but I love Tonga. I love not having money and things like that, it makes me who I am and it’s no big deal.

 

Can you explain what you do now to survive here in Tonga?

As you know, I was incarcerated for thirteen and a half years and within that time I tightened up my artistic skills and I am a tattoo artist. I am slowly getting into paintings and everything else. I believe that when a man tells himself that he is a professional or a master in something, he ceases to learn more so I am an apprentice and I will be an apprentice until I die. This is what I do, I am a freehand tattoo artist. Always learning.

 

Is there anything at all that you could say you miss about the US?

The only thing I miss is a greasy cheeseburger, you know. That’s basically it. And it miss my brothers that are incarcerated right now, but they are still alive. That’s it. Other than that it’s all good.

 

Thanks for taking the time to talk today Sione. Is there anything else you would like to say about life in Tonga?

Life in Tonga is about one love, that’s it. That’s it. Laid back. If you ain’t got funds here, it’s not the end of the world. We eat coconuts, bananas, and papayas all for free. That’s what we say, ofa atu!

 

Malo Sione! Ofa Atu

The Ngaue family, Nukunuku, Tonga


One of the more remarkable stories I have ever heard:

“The pickaxe went in right through my mermaid here on my back”

“and it came out right above my bellybutton. I went and put it up against a tree to pull it out just like I saw in a movie once.”

“The cops here in Tonga hate me so they loaded me in the back of a truck and drove me to the hospital really slow.”

Sione and his wife Sulu, strong survivors.

Sione and his wife Sulu, strong survivors.


59 Comments

  1. sione k ngaue

    This is beautiful, I really enjoied reading your work not just of me, but the over all concept, I especially liked the coronation an the the photo of the king in hes Rolls Royce taxi, I myself have never seen the king in person so your photo is the best next thing, thankz friend!!!

  2. Heneli Ofahulu Ma'u

    Sione,this is a good story of you, that I read Man,……..You a the man,….not that easy person to giveup easy,this is the true life story of You Man,…..I saluted to You bro,…..Home sweet homes,…..brother.

  3. Great story on adapting to the lifestyle. That is good you got the language back and your lucky you had family back home.

  4. S. Naufahu

    I loved reading every word of this. experience breeds wisdom and I (a 22 year old) have learned a share of it through his story. Thanks you Todd! Thanks you Sione!

  5. S. Naufahu

    I loved reading every word of this. Experience breeds wisdom and I (a 22 year old) have learned a share of it through his story. Thank you Todd! Thank you Sione!

  6. Amy Brown

    An amazing story that should be recorded on videos to promote smooth transition of deportee’s survival in the Island Kingdom. You have done proud to yourself Sione Ngaue and your family as well. The best of your talent as an artist has unfolded golden benefit to all. God bless.

    • Hi Amy, a video series on this topic is something that is currently in the works. Thanks for your comment!

  7. pharaoh

    This is one of the positive stories of expatriated US citizens to repatriate back to the mother land. US can’t seem to rehabilitate so they ship them off for the motherland to deal with. If I were the tongan government I would deny the US the dumping of ex-convicts…

    • It is unfortunate that the US sends so many people back to Tonga and other places around the world. Like I mentioned in the post, I cannot understand why there are so many deportees from the US in Tonga and hardly any from NZ and Australia where there are also very large numbers of Tongans living. The Tongan govt would probably love to deny the US sending back the deportees but they are legally only citizens only of Tonga and they have to be accepted back into their country of origin once they get deported.

  8. AKM

    A true and touching reflection of reality in one’s life and our everyday journey. How it’s concept determined one’s future days ahead. Thank you for the article such a pleasant read indeed and wishing Sione and his family all the best.

    Ofa atu and many blessings.

  9. Amu

    Way to break down the barriers that have held some down from simply living day to day…one day when I come bk to Tonga I’ll be sure to slide thru n get blasted..Stay up toko

  10. Iki

    Great read! I look forward to more of this series. Awesome work Todd, and malo Sione for sharing your truth.

  11. Ana Mahe

    Great story! I wish those other deportees can find meaning to their life again. It will decrease the number of crimes in Tongatapu now. I have heard so many robberies happened in Tonga. And I believe, those are done by most of the deportees from America. An organization should be established to help Tongan deported back from America. It is sad to see those deportees never learned anything, and still come in and out of the prison system in Tonga.

    • I agree, there should be a support network for deportees when they arrive back in Tonga but there doesn’t appear to be at the present time. Only in Samoa apparently..

  12. Leota Moroga

    Awesome story and interview, I think it is a change of a man by things that he learn from his hard life. Going back to Tonga is better rehabilitation to his life and he use the chance very well…Ofa atu uso…
    I wouldn’t mind to pay for this bro to be a encouraging speaker to the youths….

  13. Jesamine Wikaira

    Malo aupito
    2006-2009 I worked amongst native Americans in the US and Canada particularly with gang affiliated youth and their families…in Frisco across to Salt Lake with pacific youth and their families in gangs particularly TCG and deportees were a major concern for US authorities and Tongan receivers back in the Kingdom…the absolute culture shock for deportees born and raised in the US it defs is a subculture of it’s own. My recent trip to tonga in July 2015 I see more young Tongan men with gang affiliated tattoos and accents that have bought them to the homeland unaccustomed to the layed back lifestyle in tonga. I would love to continue my work in this area in tonga with the youth culture and older generation gangsters affected by deportation, interviews, collections…but tonga is so beautiful so conditioned and cultural it is not conducive to a gangster lifestyle it cannot survive because tonga is built on royal hierarchy as a commoner survival daily and family is the only thread with Christianity at it’s helm…living off the land and having no money is not the end of the world. My work now focused in NZ and Australia has also seen similar deportee stories. Let me know if there are any more individuals or teams continuing this type if work in the kingdom I’m up for it. Ofa atu kmou3 Sesimani x

    • Hi Jesamine, Thanks for your comment. I am up for getting involved with this kind of work as well. Shoot me an email in the “contact” section when you have a chance! Thanks!

  14. Jesamine Wikaira

    Best Wishes Sione Ngaue and to your wife and children who give you purpose in your current journey ofa atu kmou3

  15. Elaine Mafi

    Awesome testimony to be heard especially for youth these days.. Keep up the good work Sione. Many Blessings

  16. Liz

    Malo for sharing your story Sione…May Heavenly Father continue to bless your family…Todd thank you for putting this article out…Great read and hopefully it will change someone else’s life out there…God Bless

  17. Vernon

    Malo uso. Hit us up in Samoa or on our fb page Samoa Returnees Charitable Trust

  18. Salote

    Loved reading this. I know Ngaue’s family from the Inglewood days. I was younger than most of them but am good friends with his sisters. It’s great to read up on how some choose transformation when they are given the opportunity. Great story! ‘Ofa atu!

  19. John

    Awesome reading Todd. Thanks Sione for the life experience.We had the same problem with deportees from NZ and overseas that slip back into their previous lifestyles and the locals are angry but government is not doing anything to rehabilitate them.Thank you.

  20. vasimata

    Stumbled on this great article. Thank you to everyone who helped make this possible. It helps point out that people are human. Rehabilitated and inspiring. Sad to think about those who are unable or aren’t so lucky…
    Excellent read!

  21. sione k ngaue

    Thank you aII for such words of kindness, but especiaIIy Todd Henry, for hes expertise, If one individuaI can gain something good out of this interview, than It was weII worth it!” I want to share this quote with you cause its speciaI to me, “Tears and Sweat render the same thing! Tears wiII get you sympathy, Sweat wiII get you change! ‘Ofa atu, One Iove,,,,

  22. Dodja320

    Malo ‘aupito for sharing your story. Helps others in the Kingdom understand. Would love to do something to help.

  23. Nia

    Thank you Todd for sharing Sione’s story with us, had a good read and so proud of u Mr Ngaue. Hope em deportees in Tonga will learn something from him and enough wasting time harrasing people in Nuku’alofa.
    Keep up the good work Todd, I enjoy every stories you put on this site – Looking forward for more to read 🙂 🙂

    ofa atu

  24. Andy

    Sione and Todd,

    Tood thanks for the great story on Sione. I just stumbled on this article by chance. But great read, enjoyed it. Looking forward to more.

    Sione thanks for sharing your story, all the best to you and your family. Ofa atu.

    Andy

  25. Fa'ao

    Its callled expatriate not diaspora Todd Henry our people made a change out of choice. Cheers.

    • Hi Fa’ao. There are many proposed definitions for the term “diaspora”, and while some of them do suggest involuntary migration from an ancestral homeland, I used the term as a general reference to the collective group of Tongans that reside outside of Tonga.

      Here are three definitions of diaspora from the Merriam-Webster dictionary online:

      a : the movement, migration, or scattering of a people away from an established or ancestral homeland.
      b : people settled far from their ancestral homelands.
      c : the place where these people live.
      *Please note that Diaspora (with a capital D) refers to Jewish people living outside of Palestine or Israel.

      Through this use of the term one could say that Tongan expatriates are also members of the greater Tongan diaspora. I hope that clears things up.

  26. Sione Malo 4 doin my tattoo,it was nice 2 read ur story.It takes my memory back 2 wen u were doin my tattoo and telling me the awesome true stories about your past life in the states an now in the kingdom.Was a real pleasure to meet you mate.Till next I visit the kingdom.

  27. Fine

    love this article…thnx todd…and thnx sione for sharing your true life story…

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