Selina Neirok Leem: ‘a small island girl with big dreams’


Selina Neirok Leem

To celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, we spoke to some of the region’s young and emerging female leaders for their take on the future of their countries and the major challenges ahead.

Selina Neirok Leem is from Majuro, Marshall Islands. Next year, Selina will be working at the United World Colleges Changshu China as an International Educator Intern. At the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21), Selina was among the global faces of climate change, representing her country as the Summit’s youngest delegate, and making a passionate plea to global leaders for stronger action on climate change.


What is your greatest achievement so far and why?

I believe it was the time I gave a speech during the International Convention of Environmental Laureates in Freiburg, Germany. My school had offered to host the event, and my teacher had inquired if I wanted to say something. This was only the second time I had delivered a speech about climate change. The first time was just with my school, but now there were outsiders and I was even more nervous.

When all the speeches were over, I was approached by some of the guests. It was overwhelming and I got quite emotional. A lady approached me, she was crying, and I was stunned. Stunned, because this woman was crying because of my people’s stories. Because during my entire speech, I was trying to remain neutral and not let my emotions get the best of me but this woman was unashamedly shedding her tears. I had really thought that those outside of the Marshalls, in the big countries, do not care.

She said: “I am really sorry for what you all are going through. Please continuing sharing what is happening in your country. You have a talent for making people feel with you.”  My heart was really touched and I felt empowered. People have not heard my people’s voice and they are going to hear it. I (we), just need to share it.

That, I believe, was my greatest personal and professional achievement, for I realized the power of sharing our stories. I wanted to scream all the way from Germany to the Marshall Islands, “Marshallese, can you all hear me? There are people here, all the way in Europe, they care. They actually care about us.”

What are the biggest issues in your country right now? How can we fix them?

Climate change impacts, gender inequality, high unemployment rate, high school drop-outs, non-communicable diseases, are some of the biggest issues we are facing right now. Our country is poor and a huge part of our government’s budget comes from United States government funding.

I believe education is the first step to addressing these issues. Once we know what they are, what are the causes, the history, how it impacts us, why they must and need to be addressed, and the support from our family, our community, our government, and internationally, then we are on the right path.

It is important that there is a clear understanding and communication between the government and its people. Right now, the entire world’s biggest threat is climate change. We all must push our governments to do their part in the fight against climate change, and honor their words spoken during the COP21 in Paris.   

What does the future look like for your country? What’s possible?

I read somewhere that the earth’s temperature has already increased by 1.3° (Celsius) and what my country is fighting for is 1.5°. Only 0.2° short. I never thought a zero point would mean so much yet right now, looking at these two numbers, they carry such significance. As the earth warms, natural events like king tides and droughts are becoming more extreme and happening at a rate that we and our country’s budget cannot keep up with.

My country just came out of a drought. I was in Germany then, but I learned from many of my friends of the long lines outside the shops as they try to fill up their water containers. I came home to my very young siblings, very aware of water consumption; telling me to stop filling the bucket because what I had was more than enough and that our water tank was almost empty. I was shocked because I’d never seen things like this.

If we continue at the rate we are going, it will be too soon that we all have to migrate. Yet many people I have talked to do not even fathom leaving. I have met adamant and spirited people who said if their country drowns, then they will drown with it. If I look at the numbers, my country’s future looks very bleak. But I cannot give up hope.

My people and my country are counting on me and others who are advocating for our country, sharing what is happening in the vast ocean of the Pacific. Too small for people to see, too far for people to reach, and a number of 52,634 people too little for people to care. Our islands are not just barely-there dots on the maps for many to turn a blind-eye to; they are our home. And our home is [the link between] our ancestors and us today.

Where do you see the Pacific, as a region, in 25 years?

Scientists had predicted that by 2050, many small island nations, vulnerable to climate change will be gone. My country being one of them. It is 2016 right now, so that means we have 34 years left. 34 years minus 25 years = 9 years.

I’d like to see us as bountiful as we always were, our culture still rich and vibrating through the waves as it bounces from island to island. Everyone still there. Our islands still there. No goodbyes. No tears. No resentment. Unity.

Hear from other young Pacific Island leaders and download the Pacific Possible reports learn more about the potential for the Pacific Islands region over the coming decades.


The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group and its employees.