News Story

Vanuatu Refugees Return and Rebuild After Volcanic Eruption

Church helps Ambae, Vanuatu refugees rebuild their lives

For the first time in four years, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were recently able to worship in their chapels on their island home of Ambae.

Local church leader for Ambae, William Boehula, noted that the first group meetings were tender and that “most of the members cried with gratitude and joy.”

The journey back to Ambae has been long and arduous for the people and continues still, as they literally raise their homes, farms and chapels from the ashes.

Ambae Island sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and is home to the active Manaro Volcano.

In July 2017, when the volcano began rumbling and spewing ash, 6,000 Ambae residents were relocated to safe zones on the island.

Ambae refugee, Albert Laih. Espiritu Santo Island, Vanuatu 2022© 2022 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

Albert Laih recalls seeing the thick plume of smoke rising high in the sky until it covered the sun so that “at midday it was dark as night."

"The roosters and chickens would go back to sleep because they thought it was night," Laih said. "All the wildlife was confused."

As the smoke continued, toxic ash began killing crops and infiltrating water supplies, prompting government officials to enforce a mandatory evacuation of the entire island.

In September 2017, about 11,000 people were removed and sheltered on neighbouring islands, while the volcano stabilised.

Albert Laih, his wife Reneth, and grandchildren Feylin and Alex remember what it was like to return to Ambae in January of 2018.

“All was gray and blanketed with ash, trees were stripped of foliage and roofs caved in under the weight,” Laih recounted.

The people began the massive effort of cleaning the ash from their homes, of finding remaining livestock and other animals, and clearing the ruined crops to plant anew.

Their efforts were short-lived as the volcano reawakened. This time the ash was accompanied by earth-shaking acoustics described by Albert Laih as “a big train noise... that shook the ground.”

Ambae resident, Simon Talai Toa, said that the roaring was accompanied by flying debris and a fiery red glow that was shooting to the sky.”

Albert Laih remembers well the event that frightened him and his wife the most.

He said, “A big rain came on a Friday night and on Saturday morning I went to the seashore and saw all the dead fish, snakes, and eels with their eyes ruined by the acid from the sky.”

He knew he and his family would have to leave Ambae.

In March 2018, emergency efforts were made to evacuate the entire population of Ambae again. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helped get people out of harm’s way.

Ambae Evacuation
Ambae Evacuation
Preparing to evacuate Ambae. Ambae, Vanutatu, 2018© 2022 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

Local church leaders agreed that an immediate rescue was necessary and they made the decision to charter a passenger ship to evacuate five branches, or congregations of Church members. The hired ship made three trips to carry the people away from Ambae to safety in Luganville, Espiritu Santo Island.

600 persons including neighbours and friends from Lolotinge, Lovutialao, Navuti, Apopo and Redcliff were settled into either the homes of relatives and friends, or into the Luganville chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The refugees came with only the belongings they could carry on their backs.

The refugees arrive in Luganville, Espiritu Santo. Luganville, Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu 2018.© 2022 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.

For a month, Church volunteers lived with hundreds of refugees at the chapel. They lovingly cleaned, cooked and cared for the displaced until they could be resettled. The Vanuatu government provided food.

The entire collaboration was monumental. Church leader, Rene M.Tarohati, was directing the Church congregations in Espiritu Santo and Ambae Islands.

"Ït was a great experience because the Lord was with us providing for all the needs of the people,” he remembers.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helped further by purchasing a fertile, eleven hectare property in the hills of Espiritu Santo, where refugees could settle and begin to rebuild their lives.  The Church also provided refugees with tents, food and materials with which they could build their own homes.

Ever mindful of the dignity of work and the need for self-reliance, Church leaders offered training opportunities to help them reconstruct their lives through their own industry. For example, Ambae refugees received training in gardening and raising chickens, which they used successfully.

Church member, Thomas Toa, noted the progress of the hard-working Ambaens, saying “These people are not sitting down, they are moving, always moving and the Church helped them get on their feet.”

A beautiful bush chapel was built on the property, and the Lagote Branch (congregation) was formed to bless and strengthen the displaced families with a place to worship. The families in the Lagote Branch are putting down roots and are feeling that they have found a home.


The people of Vanuatu, however, feel a deep connection to their ancestral lands and that longing has drawn about half of the displaced members back to Ambae.

In 2020, some families started returning back to their lands in Ambae to reclaim them from the volcanic eruption. As one would expect, the arrival of Covid in Vanuatu slowed progress.

Gratefully, the time has finally come for a wonderful leap forward for those who have chosen to return.

Two small Church congregations were organised so that sacrament meetings, could resume there for the first time since the resettlement..

The people cleared volcanic debris from the Church buildings and prepared for the first worship meetings recently held in October, 2022.

"The meetings were emotional," President Boehula reported. 

"Worshippers were overjoyed to be together and plan to gather more members and friends to join them as they continue to rebuild in Ambae," he said.

Style Guide Note:When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online Style Guide.