Born and raised in the Hyogo Prefecture in Japan, Hitomi "Makalani" Imai, a Legal Aid client, never imagined she would live in Hawaii – “a beautiful land, with such beautiful energy,” she describes.
She is excited about her future as her life has turned around in surprising ways, and has adopted the Hawaiian name "Makalani" (eye of heaven) to symbolize a new start. She is also launching her life coaching program for fellow Japanese early next year.
“I’ve always been thinking of my experience because emotional abuse is a big thing,” says Makalani. “My whole life is up and down, and I didn’t have the confidence. Now I know how to get the confidence. And I know many Japanese struggle with the same thing because of the culture. So, I decided to become a spiritual life coach.”
There had been a season in Makalani’s life when she was unable to speak and stand up for herself, and Legal Aid helped her get through it.
It started in 2017 when she arrived on Oahu and married a man she met online after several months of courtship. They had a rocky beginning. He had broken up their engagement once for “not keeping some promises.” One promise was for Makalani to stop communicating with friends.
About a year into the marriage when Makalani applied to become a lawful permanent US resident (get a green card), her husband vacillated between supporting and not supporting her application. He threatened divorce and told her to go back to Japan. She finally decided to divorce him when he denied support on the day of Makalani’s immigration interview.
Makalani was resigned to accept her fate until she found out about Legal Aid through a friend. Legal Aid stepped in and negotiated with her then husband, eventually getting her to receive financial compensation.
“The Legal Aid attorney sent him a beautiful, strong, confident email to negotiate,” recalls Makalani. “It is not about the money, but it gave me the confidence that I’m okay, that I will be fine. With Legal Aid’s support, I finally stood up for me.”
The support Makalani received from Legal Aid staff went beyond the legal battle. They were there for her emotionally; they became her pillars of strength.
“Whenever I start to worry, the attorney and the paralegal always get back to me,” she says. “They were very supportive all the time. They are amazing!”
The divorce was finalized in 2019, and in April 2021, Makalani finally received a green card, applying as a self-petitioner under the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). In a few years, she plans to apply for US citizenship.
“Legal Aid helps immigrants who are in a position of being powerless. They think that they have nowhere to go. But Legal Aid helps them and lets them feel they are important individuals.”
Now, while preparing to launch her business called “Aloha Style Services,” Makalani works with a construction company using her administrative and accounting background. She also freelances as a translator of information materials from English to Japanese, and is currently in a supportive, loving relationship.
“I’m doing great,” she says. And her smile says it all.