Before Carolina Zalazar boarded a plane to Bali, she stocked up her fridge and pantry in Auckland. Carolina lives on a leafy street in Greenlane. There's a veggie patch in her garden and a lemon tree. It's the place that Carolina calls home. And it's the place where she and her daughter were going to self-isolate after their one-week holiday, hence the food. But the two of them never made it back. They have been in Indonesia for nearly three months now, biding their time, not knowing when they will be allowed to return.
I became interested in Carolina's story because it is so different from mine. I am a German national who arrived here in early February. I would probably be back in my hometown of Berlin right now, if it wasn't for Covid-19. Our flight was cancelled so we are still here. But I don't regret our lockdown experience. It made me appreciate New Zealand – a country I know and love – even more. I saw how calm people remained throughout the crisis. I saw how willingly they made personal sacrifices for the sake of others. I saw a team of five million – to use Jacinda Ardern's much-quoted expression – come together in an effort to eliminate the virus.
When a German newspaper asked me to write about that effort, I came across a Facebook group of work-visa holders pleading to get back into the country. More than 10,000 people applied for an exemption to the border restrictions, many of them are in the same situation as Carolina Zalazar. She moved here from Argentina twelve years ago. She has been working ever since and currently holds a management job with a major car manufacturer. She is also a single mum. Carolina's daughter Martina, now 10, was born in Auckland. Martina plays netball. She loves to climb trees and to walk barefoot even when it rains. Just like any other Kiwi kid.
It may seem strange that Carolina decided to board a plane in mid-March when the virus had already reached New Zealand. Why didn't she cancel?
"Looking back, I wish I hadn't gone", she says. "But I would have never imagined that the borders would close for us."
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The trip, booked six months earlier, was meant to be a birthday present for Martina and, as every parent knows, it's hard to let a child down. Especially when you are a hardworking single mum. So they went to Bali, taking only a small suitcase. They checked into their hotel and paid a visit to the beach. When they had just settled in, they heard that the New Zealand government advised all Kiwis to come home immediately. Ok then, Carolina thought – and drove back to the airport.
Legally speaking, Carolina is not a Kiwi. She first came on a work visa that was extended repeatedly, as it often happens. Then she got a so-called work to residence visa, planning to apply for residency at the end of this year. The last time she went to Argentina which was five years ago, she missed Auckland a lot. Her current papers, valid for another 12 months, state that she has the right to leave and re-enter the country as often as she likes. But when she got to the airport, she was told that she couldn't go back. Her daughter who never lived anywhere else but New Zealand broke down in tears.
I am a psychologist by training and I have three daughters myself. I know that children tend to be more resilient than parents think. But I do believe that this girl's experience of being turned away by the country that she considers home is traumatic and could be deeply harmful. "Mummy, when can we go home?", Martina keeps asking.
While I was talking to her mother via Whatsapp, Martina was visible in the background, wandering around the place they are renting. They had to move four times in order to find a safe and suitable location. Carolina still pays rent for the house in Auckland. She even pays the gardener to look after the lawn. At the same time, she had to buy clothes and other bare necessities in Bali. Since Martina didn't bring any toys, she often folds these clothes and arranges them in neat piles, pretending to be a shop manager. Martina is often left to her own devices because her mother works remotely, tuning in to her Auckland office every day from 4am to 2pm. (The job at the car company isn't gone, thank God for that.) A couple of weeks ago, Martina heard that all her friends have gone back to school. And she is not with them.
One of things I admire most about New Zealand is its education system. For a book I wrote, I visited quite a few schools here and I was amazed at how good they were at making migrants feel at home. I saw assembly halls exhibiting the flags of all nations represented in the student population. I saw teachers saying "Good morning" in any number of languages. I saw a class of Auckland first-graders struggling to pronounce words in Korean – just to make a girl who didn't speak English feel welcome. And I told myself that New Zealanders are at ease with newcomers because their ancestors were settlers themselves.
Many work-visa holders stuck overseas have lived here for years. They paid taxes and raised kids. They built a life for themselves. Now, they are locked out. Around the world, the country's prime minister Jacinda Ardern is being praised for her politics of kindness that stands in stark contrast to the actions of other world leaders. Isn't it time to extend that kindness to thousands of people who rightly feel they belong here, too?
Over the past couple of months, Carolina has emailed MPs and lawyers in New Zealand. The ones who got back to her said they couldn't help her. In April, the government amended immigration law, giving itself far more decision-making powers. They used those powers to deny entry to work-visa holders stuck abroad. People like Carolina understand, of course, that there are health concerns. They wouldn't want to see the case numbers rise either. They are willing to undergo the two-week quarantine and they have offered to pay for it themselves. But why has James Cameron's Avatar film crew – 56 people from Los Angeles of all places - been allowed to enter and they haven't? And doesn't the much-anticipated introduction of a transtasman bubble with 25 million Australians pose far greater challenges?
An information sheet sent out to employers by Immigration New Zealand suggests that there may be another reason why work-visa holders aren't allowed back in. "If your employee is unable to return to New Zealand, you may wish to explore other options, such as employing someone currently in New Zealand who is a New Zealand citizen", it says.
The underlying sentiment is, to an extent, understandable. I know that New Zealanders are deeply worried about the economic effects of Covid-19 and that they want to limit immigration for now. But rejecting new applications is different from shutting out those who've been here for years.
"People who have given a lot to New Zealand are just dropped", said Arran Hunt, an immigration lawyer based in Auckland. "There's no loyalty, no gratitude, no understanding that their life is here." Hunt also argued that many of the migrants who cannot enter would soon be missed because "companies will continue to cry out for skilled staff, as they have for years."
I know from my experience here that New Zealand holds itself to high moral standards. That is especially true for the issue of migration. I have often heard people argue that easing restrictions for high-net-worth-individuals from abroad would pose ethical dilemmas.
They said that Peter-Thiel-types have no emotional affinity toward New Zealand and threaten the nation's egalitarian spirit. A couple of years ago when English pop star Ed Sheeran said he'd like to move here, prime minister Ardern came up with a little citizenship test. Did Sheeran know what jandals were? And what about pineapple lumps? Was he, most importantly, prepared to make New Zealand his home?
Carolina Zalazar has long decided that her home is here. When we were talking she praised New Zealand for its efforts to eliminate the virus, and she sounded as proud as any New Zealander. She may even know what pineapple lumps are. (I didn't ask her about that.) The other day someone told her that lemons are very expensive in Bali. She nodded and thought of her garden in Greenlane where she grows the fruit for free. And she wondered whether she will ever see that lemon tree again.
• Verena Friederike Hasel is a writer from Berlin currently living in New Zealand.