Fijians’ culture of compassion

Brad Dreyer's day begins in Glen Ellen at 8:30 each morning with the arrival of Bentley Wan.

For the rest of the day, the patient man with an easy grin will be Dreyer's nurse, physical therapist, driver, valet and best friend.

Dreyer, 26, has limited use and control of his hands and legs after suffering a traumatic brain injury five years ago when he was struck by a hit-and-run motorcyclist while riding his skateboard. It will take Wan nearly three hours to ready Dreyer for a chiropractic appointment in the early afternoon.

Wan is careful to skip no step in this meticulous and unhurried process. He prepares the morning's nourishment and medications, delivered through a feeding tube, and discreetly disposes of the waste from the previous night.

Wan, 47, is one of hundreds of Fijians who live in Sonoma County and are in-home caregivers to people most in need, from the severely disabled to those in hospice care and nearing death. While some come to the job after realizing how hard it is to get work in the United States, there are values in their Fijian culture that make them particularly suited to caring for others.

Wan gently massages Dreyer's facial muscles with the hope that eventually this well-loved child from a close-knit family, a lively and helpful kid who played drums and soccer and was a pirate in his high school production of 'The Pirates of Penzance,' will smile again.

'OK, buddy. Start smiling, man,' he cajoles.

Wan will do anything it might take to provoke those muscles to express happiness — dancing, making a funny face, telling jokes. The smile hasn't happened yet. 'I end up laughing at myself,' he conceded. But even after 2½ years of caring for Dreyer with the same tender care he would his own son, Wan keeps the faith.

'Get your tongue to work, that way you start eating and talking. Push up Brad, push up,' Wan says as he brushes Dreyer's teeth, gums and tongue. There is no noticeable response, but Wan keeps coaching him.

An uplifting drumbeat of Christian motivational affirmations about healing and wellness pours out of a laptop Wan has set up in Dreyer's room. There's a Batman poster on the ceiling, a Sonoma Valley High School class of 2006 photo and other reminders of an old life that Brad's mother, Mary Kate Dreyer, still hopes he might, through intensive therapy from professionals and committed caregivers like Wan, reclaim in at least some small measure.

'I want to see you talk on my watch, before I leave this place,' Wan declares sternly, looking into the still-handsome face of Dreyer, whose eyes, behind glasses, don't appear to be focused.

By definition, Wan is a caregiver. But he is more like a close uncle, best friend and extension of Dreyer himself, intuiting his needs, desires and discomforts since he can't speak for himself. By Wan's estimate, Dreyer may understand only 10 words.

Still, Wan reads to him, anything from sports stories in the newspaper to books he knows his sons of similar age would like. He takes Dreyer for wheelchair walks in the neighborhood park, plays his favorite old TV shows and helps with home physical therapy.

'I talk to him as I would talk to my son. I get mad at him. I'm joyful with him. I make silly jokes. I just want to believe he's enjoying it,' Wan says.

He maintains with understatement that 'the only qualification you need for this job is compassion.' Mary Kate Dreyer does not agree.

'I could not have Brad at home without Bentley. You are a gift from heaven, Mr. Wan,' she calls to him as Bentley readies Dreyer for his wheelchair.

After earning an MBA, Wan taught high school math and economics, managed a bank for 11 years and oversaw the Fijian branch of an Australian government agency serving underdeveloped South Pacific communities, similar to the Peace Corps.

This is not the job he envisioned when he came to the U.S. with his wife, Dee, in 2009 after winning a green-card lottery that allowed him to emigrate. Disenchanted with what they believed was government corruption following a series of military coups in Fiji, the couple decided to start over in the U.S., hoping to provide better opportunities for their three sons, ages 19, 21 and 24.

They joined a growing community of expatriate Fijians in Sonoma County that Dr. Narayan Raju, the honorary consul for Fiji in San Francisco, estimates at about 600. Some within the local Fijian community believe they could number 1,000 or more, and an extraordinarily high percentage of them, by some estimates as much as 90 percent, are or have been caregivers.

Eritrean, Filipino and some Latino immigrants also have taken to caregiving, but the Fijians have claimed it both as a family business and a religious calling. Most have a strong Christian faith, primarily Methodist and evangelical, and call upon that as motivation to attend to others.

It is a job, nonetheless, that most have assumed by default and economic necessity. Many, in their 40s or older, arrived in the midst of the economic downturn and found doors closed to them in their professions.

Those who are in-home caregivers are paid by the day or week, and for many, a day is 24 hours long. Their pay in reality is much less than minimum wage and if they need time off, they have to find and pay for their own relief.

Under California's Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which went into effect in January 2014, caregivers and others who provide in-home service work must be paid the minimum wage of $9 an hour and time-and-a-half for every hour over nine in a day, and 45 in a week.

But enforcement can be a challenge. Caregivers worry about losing their jobs, particularly the undocumented, even though they are entitled to the same rights, said Maureen Purtill, director of the Graton Day Labor Center, which seeks to advance workers' rights and facilitate fair employment.

'I came here thinking it would be easy to get the type of work I was doing in Fiji,' says Licia Banuve, 57, who came with her husband, Lekima (Lex) to Santa Rosa in 2007 with a green immigration card, leaving behind a good job in the office of the High Commission for Papua New Guinea in Fiji. But neither she nor Lex, who also worked in diplomatic offices in Fiji, could find jobs in the private or public sector.

So they became caregivers, a job for which they say they are innately suited, even though the occupation barely exists in Fiji. The people of the South Pacific island have strong family ties and the cultural norm is for multiple generations to live together. Some quietly express bewilderment that there is such a high demand for their services in the U.S.

Still, they take pride in their profession and express tenderness for many of their clients, coming to embrace them as family members, particularly those with absent or neglectful families.

'Caregiving is in our blood in Fiji,' says Ili Raiyawa, who was a research librarian for an international social welfare agency before coming to the U.S. in 2000. She spends her nights caring for a 67-year-old woman who is partially paralyzed from a stroke. By day, Raiyawa helps connect fellow Fijians with clients who need caregivers, working out of an office in her garage in Santa Rosa's Roseland area. She answers calls 24 hours a day.

It is a job with no precise description. Every situation is different, every client's needs unique. They may be young and severely disabled, in their 90s with dementia, or hospice patients in their last months, weeks or days of life. Caregivers can find themselves overseeing patients with complex medical needs, handling medications, catheters, syringes, colostomy bags, oxygen tanks. They might manage their client's social lives, take them on outings, run interference with family members, do the shopping and light housekeeping, sleep at their bedsides as they are dying, clean their bodies after death and lay out their burial clothes.

'You wouldn't believe what I handle. There are no clear boundaries,' says Teri Bond, a native Fijian who turned to caregiving after she lost a job in Silicon Valley in the dot-com bust more than a decade ago. There are family dynamics, hospital dynamics, home dynamics. The caregiver, she explains, pivots in the middle of sometimes-competing forces, striking what she calls 'a beautiful balance' that always seeks to keep the welfare of the person she is caring for at the center of every decision.

Bond, 50, lives in an apartment with a 93-year-old former UC Berkeley professor, 'a brilliant man' with Alzheimer's disease. During a quick lunchtime break, her phone rings incessantly with calls concerning her own placement agency.

Bond, who is almost 6 feet tall, speaks with the assured authority of a CEO over the phone. But when she talks personally about the people she cares for, she tears up.

There was the elderly woman who lived for calls from her only son. When a call didn't come on her birthday, Bond told a white lie. She said he had called while the woman was sleeping. The truth, she said, 'would have ruined her day, ruined her week.'

Bond knows how important personal ties are to the elderly and dying. If a client is in need of company, she becomes a detective, probing for clues about old friends. She may ask where the client went to school, look up classmates and call them over for tea. She is a careful listener, picking up on their likes, finding music they will enjoy on the computer and selecting TV shows that will stimulate them. If they mention a special restaurant, she will take them there, often doing personal advance work with the staff so that when she arrives with her client, they will be greeted warmly.

Fijian caregivers think nothing of welcoming their elderly clients into their lives. Although those who have worked for placement agencies are counseled not to get personally involved, they insist it's an impossible expectation.

'They see you every day. They talk to you every day, and that's what they're longing for, to talk to their family every day. But they're not there. You're the one who is there,' Raiyawa says. She has cared for more than 100 people in 14 years, many at the end of life; she will lay out a comforter to be by their side so they are not alone when they die. She has cringed inside as families have squabbled over the beds of dying relatives.

'We know we're not supposed to, but we're always emotionally involved. We feel for them when they're being mistreated or neglected. We can't block out what we see and hear,' says Licia Banuve, who spends nights with an elderly woman with Alzheimer's.

A peaceful death was the final exit of George Greeott, a rancher and woodworker from Windsor who died in 2014 at age 104, having reveled in most every day of his life. Lex spent three years with Greeott at his hilltop ranch, preparing meals for him and doing his laundry. They were close.

'One day we had our dinner,' Lex remembers. 'He said, 'I'm going to bed.' I said OK. Then after a while, it was very quiet. I went into his room and he looks different. He's already gone.'

More heartbreaking is observing how money can divide and isolate families. He recalls one wealthy client in Santa Rosa who had a son and daughter who lived in Northern California. Neither visited.

'Only when he got worse did the daughter come. … They ended up selling the house and he is in an Alzheimer's facility. I feel sorry for him,' Lex says softly. 'I don't think he deserved to be treated that way.'

Caregivers seem committed to bringing to their clients at the end whatever bit of happiness they can.

'It is ingrained in us that one of the highest honors you can have is to take care of those who took care of you,' says Santa Rosa caregiver Viniana Gaunavinaka.

Bond says she has many times treated her elderly clients to island-style birthday parties, dressing them in beautiful muumuus and inviting friends and other Fijians to come celebrate with guitar music and traditional food. For the 40th birthday party of one of her own close friends, many of her Fijian guests invited their elderly clients. The bash, held in a hall at the Oakmont Senior Living community, was for the attendees like a dip in the youth-restoring pool from the movie 'Cocoon.'

'There was a visiting jazz band from Fiji,' Bond says. 'This was all hair down and oh, my gosh, the food! All caregivers were on standby. But who cares. These guys were on cloud nine. They danced and danced and they were crazy. They were recalling their time during the war. They never wanted to stop. We had to announce the last dance over and over.'

The relationship is not a one-way street. Caregivers speak of the life lessons they learn from their clients, of their loyalty in marriage and their frugality, often born out of an early life of deprivation.

'It's beautiful, their sense of reality, their depth of endurance and sense of responsibility,' Bond explains. 'These people have a great understanding of this country that is something that cannot be taught. I've had the privilege of seeing it through their eyes.'

Elenoa Waqabaca remembers the date, Dec. 12, five years ago, when she met her current client. Waqabaca had been recruited by a cousin who had been taking care of the then-90-year-old woman, but was moving back to Fiji. It was a hard time. Waqabaca was dropping her own mother off at the airport for a permanent move back to Fiji, and she was dealing with profound changes in her new life. A former aide in the office of the vice president of Fiji, she had been forced to flee the country within 24 hours after a 2006 coup.

'My first night here, when I put her to bed to sleep, the first thing she said to me was, 'Can you pray for me?' And I did. I hadn't prayed for three long years, but I'm the caregiver and the client is always right. … She contributed to my getting back to the church.'

Waqabaca is sitting in a small yogurt shop near Montgomery Village in Santa Rosa, where she brings her client at least once a week for her favorite treat. The woman, now 95, happily digs into her berry yogurt. She has dementia and repeats questions. Waqabaca answers each time, patiently, as if it were the first time.

She lives with Waqabaca, occupying the second bedroom in her small apartment in Santa Rosa. After her son and daughter-in-law moved out of state, the decision was made for the woman to stay with her caregiver. The 49-year-old Fijian makes room for the client in her life, while making sure the woman has photo albums of her own family within reach.

'Give me a hug,' Waqabaca affectionately urges as she helps her 'roommate' on with her coat. Waqabaca brings her along on errands and if she needs time away, she says she has to 'buy her freedom' by paying a neighbor, an aunt or other Fijians to relieve her.

Waqabaca considers herself fortunate to have such a sweet and easygoing lady under her own roof.

'I don't find this work hard,' she says. 'I don't complain about it because I have a life. I don't have to be away from my home. I just look after her and feed her.

'It seems so hard for American society to understand. But this is just like caring for one of our own.'

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 521-5204 or

Reprinted from Sonoma Magazine. To read more articles celebrating Sonoma's scenic beauty, agricultural abundance and idyllic lifestyle, visit

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


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