Who would leave the safety of Covid-free New Zealand to travel to the US during a pandemic amid escalating racial tensions? Well, I would – but only for three very special reasons.
My whakapapa extends from the tangata whenua (people of the land) of Aotearoa and across the Pacific to Samoa, Europe and beyond. I come from generations of people who set off from their homelands to explore new opportunities beyond their horizons. I am proud to continue to live that way as a worldly wāhine and the mother of three global citizens.
Born in Japan, raised in Hawai’i and now living in California, my children Tūmanako (22), Tāne (21) and Tiararaina (16) know that their connection to Aotearoa New Zealand goes back over 20 generations and hundreds of years. I gave them Māori names so that no matter where in the world they travel or where they may end up they will always remember who they are and who they come from.
When my marriage to their father ended in 2012 they remained with him in the United States while I moved to New Zealand, the country I was born in but hadn’t lived in for 27 years. I had been feeling lost but also that it was the perfect time for my Aotearoa homecoming – I came back to heal my broken heart, eat my mum’s cooking and make a new life, connecting with my Māori culture, language, iwi and extended whānau.
The plan was that the children would come to me when I was set up with a job and a place for us all to live. But by the time I got settled, the two boys, teenagers at the time, were settled in high school, playing (American) football and thriving. We didn’t want to displace them when they were finally laying down roots; as military kids they never really had a place to call “home”. Only my daughter Tiararaina, aged 10, moved to New Zealand. I put her into a Māori bilingual class and she picked up te reo Māori faster than me. When she spoke English, she had an American accent that made her stand out from the rest of her class but when she spoke te reo, there was no accent. As we settled into New Zealand life, I arranged for her to get citizenship and a passport.
A few years ago she decided she wanted to return to her father and go to high school in America. They make it look so good on Netflix: prom and homecoming and all the rest. I understood the allure. “But we have Polyfest!” I pleaded, but it fell on deaf ears. With a sad heart I had to let her follow her California dreams.
A rescue mission
Now it’s 2020 and there’s a global pandemic. The US has become a hotspot for Covid-19 with almost 1.9 million confirmed cases, and that number is growing daily. On top of that, protesters have taken to the streets across America and around the world to demand an end to police brutality and systemic racism. The country is a tinder box that is ready to ignite and not an ideal place for my three Ts to be living right now.
After discussions with my kids and their dad, we decided New Zealand would be a much safer alternative for them and so plans were made for them to come and live with me. Tiararaina is a citizen so she can come but her brothers are on US passports. I had always planned to get the boys’ NZ citizenship and passports done but kept getting put off by the cost, and the time and energy it takes to gather all the documents from multiple countries and submit them all. I figured if they ever wanted to move to New Zealand we would do it then – never imagining there would be a time when the government would close the borders to everyone but its citizens.
I didn’t feel comfortable with my 16-year-old daughter making the epic journey across the Pacific from Los Angeles to Auckland alone so I applied for a travel ban exemption from the NZ government so that her brothers could accompany her. Within a day we heard back from Immigration NZ that my application was denied. The trip was not considered ‘critical travel’ and there was no way to appeal the decision. I did what any mother with the means would do and booked myself a ticket to go and bring my children home safely.
I was on the phone to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and Immigration NZ the very next day to find out what could be done. According to the government’s website my children qualify for the exemption – in the first application because they would be travelling with their minor sister who is a New Zealand citizen, and in the second one because they would be travelling with me, their New Zealand mother. In the application I stated that I fear for their safety in the US because of the virus and the escalating racial tensions there. We are awaiting the decision but remain hopeful that our current applications for exceptions will be successful.
Within days of booking my flight I was on TV One’s Te Karere telling my story of Māori children being denied entry into New Zealand. I was in two minds about sharing the story; I knew it was information that people would be interested in but I was reluctant to admit I was going to the US. Still, after attending Auckland’s Black Lives Matter solidarity march I was inspired to speak my truth and so I talked with Te Karere host Oriini Kaipara on Facebook Live and was interviewed for a story that aired on the show itself. Between them, the videos have been viewed on Facebook over 40,000 times and I’ve been overwhelmed by the support and love shown to my family and me as a result.
Crossing borders in a global pandemic
Last Thursday night, June 4, I found myself in an empty Auckland International Airport checking in for my Air New Zealand flight to Los Angeles. The day before, Air NZ let me know the flight I had booked was now a cargo flight and they had shifted me to a later flight. I didn’t mind – I was just happy to be going – even though I lost my aisle seat in the process. Being stuck in the middle of two strangers on a 12-hour flight is not my idea of fun but I had much bigger concerns. Would I be able to get into the US? What would their procedures be? Would I have to quarantine? Would it be safe? Would I be able to bring my three kids home with me? So many questions were running around my head.
The flight was filled to capacity – no social distancing – and most passengers had masks but didn’t always wear them. From the accents of the people around me, the travellers were mostly Americans returning home, with a few brave Kiwis also onboard. Over 100 people from our full flight were transferring in Los Angeles to a British Airways flight to London.
Landing in America
Our arrival in Los Angeles was surreal. We were the only incoming flight being processed at our terminal and the tedious procedures I know so well from coming through that usually bustling airport two to three times a year were a breeze. This is how I want to travel all the time! Even the US Immigration and Customs officials were in unusually good moods. On a normal day, coming through US Immigration involves being treated like an alien or that your existence is an inconvenience. Not this time. My immigration guy was jovial and even flirty, looking deep into my eyes and telling me I looked much too young to have grown adult children even as he looked at my hideous passport photo and saw my date of birth. What had started out feeling like a zombie apocalypse movie because of the empty airport terminal turned into a Twilight Zone episode – what alternate universe had I been transported into where stoic US immigration officials now laughed and joked?
Usually it takes a lot of coordination for my kids to find me in the throng of people at Tom Bradley International Arrivals at LAX. This time there were no throngs, no steady stream of cars pulling in to pick up passengers – no one was around. My kids found me easily.
Driving through the streets of Los Angeles I noticed that everyone was wearing masks. The infamous LA traffic was non-existent. Sixteen-lane freeways that would usually be clogged with traffic on a Thursday afternoon were free flowing.
Black Lives Matter
My son Tāne is actively involved in Black Lives Matter protests here in Southern California. Both my sons have been pulled over by police, Tūmanako at gunpoint. Black and brown men are most at risk for police brutality here and long before the world learned of George Floyd I had to have “the talk” with my brown sons about what to do if stopped by police: keep your hands visible at all times, do whatever is asked of you. If you reach into the glove box or your pockets to retrieve your documents or ID tell the cop what you are doing and get permission before you make any movements. In Aotearoa we can’t comprehend needing to have those conversations with our brown sons but if our New Zealand police become armed, this is the reality Māori and Pasifika parents will have to deal with.
So here I am in California, hoping against hope that Immigration NZ relent and give my two sons the travel ban exemptions they need to come home with me. I don’t know what the future holds but I know that I will do anything to protect my children and keep them safe – even putting myself at risk to travel during this time. I’m not asking to jump any queues or to get around mandatory government-imposed quarantine in New Zealand. I appreciate that our government is being strict by keeping our borders closed to non NZ-citizens and that they are heavily scrutinising who can get a travel ban exemption. I understand the need to keep the country safe so that the extreme lockdown we all went through was not for nothing and the number of lives we lost to the virus doesn’t grow.
But these are my sons who are just missing a piece of paper that validates their connection to New Zealand. We will be submitting their NZ citizenship and passport paperwork as soon as we can. We are willing to be tested for the virus and to adhere to the strict quarantine requirements on arrival back in the country. We just want to come home.