'It’s a nightmare of a situation as we don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel'

Stranded Indian New Zealanders issue plea to Ardern government

Their livelihoods are at risk, their children’s schooling halted, and their entire futures thrown into doubt, writes Gaurav Sharma.

For several weeks now, an increasing number of Indian New Zealanders who are currently overseas have been sharing with me their experiences. In all our conversations, a common theme has emerged.

While all of these people – the citizens and permanent residents as well as work visa holders who are ordinarily resident in New Zealand – understand the precarious situation the world is facing due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and the need for New Zealand to protect its borders with limited managed isolation capacity, these two sets of people seek a time-frame from the government: when can they return to their lives in new Zealand?

Take the case of Rohit Sharma, who came to New Zealand in 2013 as an international student. A permanent resident, he owns a computer repair business in Wellington, and employs two workers. He went to India on March 6 for his wedding. At the time Covid-19 was yet to escalate into a crisis in New Zealand. He tied the knot on March 12, and was to return to New Zealand on March 22.

Rohit Sharma with his wife. Photo: supplied

For him, the happiest occasion of his life has turned into an indefinite wait to get back to normal life. “Through various social media channels, community contacts, and references, I brought 300 people together to be flown back to New Zealand. But the New Zealand government doesn’t have enough isolation capacity to accommodate the number. Now, we don’t have any definite time-frame for the flights to take us back to New Zealand,” he said.

Another such example is of Sara Janvekar, who moved to New Zealand in 2014, after getting married to a citizen, Sagar Janvekar. Her son was born here, and the family is based in Rotorua.

She had gone with her son to India so that he could spend some time with his grandparents, and they were scheduled to come back to New Zealand end-March after celebrating her son’s fifth birthday.

“I completely understand what the New Zealand government is trying to do to protect our borders. But these delays, the uncertainty, feeling of being stuck, and not able to plan anything further is making our family very anxious,” she said.

Sara Janvekar and family. Photo: supplied

Apart from the obvious anxiety, there are numerous stories of these delays causing financial burden to stranded New Zealanders in India.

One such family is that of Sonia Sharma, who with her husband and daughter went to India on March 5 for a family vacation. The entire family has New Zealand permanent residency. Unable to come back, Sonia lost her job as a beauty therapist and her husband will do so soon, they fear.

On the advice of local travel agents, they booked a flight to return to New Zealand for June 1, which never took off and they lost a lot of money. “We already were low on funds, and losing money on tickets was extremely stressful. The mercy flights that ran between the two countries were too expensive in any case. Now, we are paying all our monthly bills in New Zealand, while sustaining our stay in India as well, which is still under lockdown,” said Sonia.

Sonia Sharma and family. Photo: supplied

Another in such a predicament is Taniya Ahuja, who with her husband holds a work visa. The family has lived in New Zealand for over four years. She has a six-month-old son. Everyone went to India in March and they were scheduled to return on April 9, so caught out when New Zealand shut its borders in late March.

“Our lives are in New Zealand. We are paying the rent every month for our apartment in Auckland. My child needs vaccination, which isn’t available in India. Our savings are depleting fast. Neither my husband or am I, are getting paid. It’s a nightmare of a situation as we don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. I have reached out to the prime minister’s office, several MPs, and Immigration New Zealand almost 10 times, but there has been no luck. We have also applied for exemption, but have been declined each time,” she said.

Taniya and family

In some cases, the situation is so grave, it is affecting the extended families as well.

Take the case of Divyakant Prajapati. The 23-year-old’s family had mortgaged the house in Gandhinagar, India, to take a $40,000 educational loan for him. Now that he is stuck in India, he is unable to honour the bank loan instalments.

“As a result the bank has started threatening us with foreclosure,” he said. “I am not able to face my family as they might become homeless because of me if the situation continues. I am praying that this sorts out soon and I can get back to work in New Zealand, and take control of the situation.”

Divyakant Prajapati. Photo: supplied

Prajapati had gone to India for two months to take care of his mother who had undergone a surgical procedure. He works as an operations manager in an Auckland based company, and has made several exemption requests to New Zealand Immigration. All have been rejected. His employer has also spoken to immigration authorities, without any luck.

With so much uncertainty all around, and no indication from the government of any time-frame, some have already started thinking about uprooting their entire lives from New Zealand.

Like Anu Varghese, for whom New Zealand has been home for the last two decades. She married John in May last year. “He finally received his visa in February this year, after providing 60 plus supporting documents to prove the genuineness and stability of our relationship,” she said.

But before John could join Anu in New Zealand, borders closed on both sides. “For the last six years I haven’t been in the best of health, but things improved as I entered marital bliss. Now, with the stress of being away from my husband for such a long time, and Immigration New Zealand changing its partnership policies every now and then, my health has deteriorated massively. I have been off work even after the lockdown ended in New Zealand,” she added.

John and Anu. Photo: Supplied

The couple, who are in their 40s, want to be together soon so that they can start a family. But with no clear answer on the time-frame, Anu and John are losing hope with every passing day. “Right now, I feel I am being pushed to think that I might have to leave New Zealand forever to be with my husband,” she said.

All of the individuals spoken to stressed that they understood the need for drastic border measures. And yet they find their lives in standstill: locked out of a country they consider home, they livelihoods and their children’s futures hanging in the air. What they seek is a timetable: an indication of when things might move again.



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