By 1news.co.nz. Republished with permission.
When Tongan mum of nine Vea Koloa said goodbye to her family back in May, she had no idea they would be spending Christmas apart.
“This is the first Christmas that I’ve been away from my kids. It’s hard for me to take it. Sometimes I try to be strong but I can’t,” Vea smiles as she tries to compose herself.
This is a woman who is used to being strong and brave.
Vea came to New Zealand seven months ago to have life changing surgery. For six years, she had lived with a facial tumour called an ameloblastoma.
Although benign, it eventually grew to be the same size as her head and weighed more than a two litre bottle of milk.
With financial assistance from the Tongan government and generous help from the New Zealand medical community, Vea’s tumour was removed on August 1. It was a mammoth operation, requiring four surgeons, operating in two teams over 12 hours.
She faced a long period of recovery and most of it has been in lockdown, with New Zealand moving into Level 4 just over a fortnight after her surgery.
Vea initially thought she might be able to go home in October but with Covid disrupting travel between New Zealand and Tonga, Vea’s repatriation has now been delayed four times.
It’s been particularly hard on her nine children – the youngest, Lianta, is just four years old.
“I keep on promising them that I’m gonna be coming back but…my little one just said to me, ‘Mum, you lied to me. How many times will you keep promising me you’re gonna come?'”
Api says last month they were given less than 24 hours notice that Vea, pending a negative Covid test, would be flown to Christchurch where she would have to complete two weeks in MIQ.
Tonga’s first Covid case had been reported at the border just a fortnight earlier.
Once in Tonga, Vea would go into managed isolation for a further three weeks but crucially, she’d be out in time for Christmas.
Api says it was very stressful and upsetting because they didn’t have time to say a proper goodbye.
“When I got the call that she had to go from here to Christchurch, it was a surprise. We had a plan with the family for a proper farewell with her. But we knew that wasn’t gonna happen.”
Api and Vea have grown very close.
“She’s one of my, my children,” Api says, her eyes filling with tears.
Then came another surprise. Vea’s flight home was cancelled and she had to return to Auckland.
With ongoing community transmission in New Zealand, the Tongan government made the call to postpone all repatriation flights until next year.
Vea is now pinning her hopes on a fifth date, in January.
She cries as she talks about the Christmas Day she will miss.
“I remember all the things we did last year…we went to church and then after church I cooked our food. It’s good to be together as a family on Christmas.”
Vea is being assisted in her repatriation by the New Zealand Medical Treatment Scheme which is funded by MFAT, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Twenty-seven Tongan nationals under the scheme have had their repatriation delayed since March 2020 and Vea is one of seven who are still waiting to go home.
Several hundred seasonal horticultural workers are also hoping for a seat when flights resume next year.
Like New Zealand, tight border controls have been a feature of Tonga’s Covid management plan and a vaccine drive means 71 per cent of Tonga’s eligible population is now fully vaccinated while 96 per cent have had their first dose.
Total reported cases remain at one.
In the meantime, Vea plans to make the most of this extra time with her “mum”, Api.
As much as she wants to get back to her children, it will be hard to leave Api behind.
“In the hospital she never left me. She was there by my side…she will be my mum forever.”