Over the past six weeks, the days have followed a certain pattern for the players and coaching staff of the Tu’uakitau rugby team from Tonga.
They wake up from their beds – mattresses on the floor of a church in Auckland where they are locked up – pray, sing hymns, eat breakfast made from donated food, and then practice.
The 29-strong force is trapped 2,000 km from their home in Tonga, stranded New Zealand after the Pacific home they closed the border for all travelers, including citizens.
The team from Ha’apai, a group of remote islands in central Tonga, arrived in New Zealand on March 3, intending to spend a month playing club rugby teams around the North Island, before returning home.
The Tu’uakitau Team spent months preparing for trips, training and fundraising. The players hope to be asked for contracts for New Zealand teams; potential pathway to home for them and their families.
One and a half weeks on the tour, opposition coaches began calling to cancel their upcoming match and they realized the gravity of the Covid-19 situation.
“We have $ 5,000 left in our bank account so we spend all of that to change our flight home,” said Tuivaita Ueleni, head coach of Tu’uakitau.
Flights are booked for March 23, three weeks after the team arrives and two days before New Zealand’s level four lockdown begins.
“We arrived at the airport and prepared to fly and that’s when we knew we could not return,” Ueleni said.
The government of Tonga has made a decision to close its borders, with all scheduled flights diverted to neighboring island countries. This leaves 29 strong players and coaches facing impending national lockdowns with limited options, and quickly shrinking funds.
“We arrived back at the Tokaikolo church‘ he was in Kalaisi without money in our pockets and people from the church offered us to stay free, “Ueleni said.
Church members quickly turned the worship hall into temporary housing for the team, spread mattresses on the floor and set up volleyball nets in the yard to keep them entertained when locked.
“Nine of the team volunteered to live with friends or relatives around the city and 20 of us have been in church since then,” said Tevita Vakasiuola, team doctor and assistant coach.
To spend long days in church, the team has been singing a lot, filling the cave hall with practiced harmony.
“Every day we pray together and sing hymns. “Boys joked that when we got home, we would know every hymn,” Ueleni said.
Their daily routine also involved walking along nearby Mount Māngare, tending to the church garden, volleyball, and then more prayers.
The 29 Tu’uakitau members are among the thousands of Pasifika people who are thought to be trapped in New Zealand because of the closure of the border.
New Zealand is traditionally dependent on seasonal workers from Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu, but with borders closed and jobs drying up, many foreign nationals have found themselves stranded without a clear understanding of when they can go home.
“We have a number of Pasifika people across the country who are here with work visas but are no longer able to work and cannot access government support,” said Debbie Sorenson, CEO of Pasifika Futures, a charitable organization that has helped provide food and shelter for more of 250 Pasifika people who were stranded.
At their temporary home in South Auckland, the Tu’uakitau team survived the donation until Air New Zealand returned the last money they spent on changing flights. So far they have been flooded with lots of food and warm clothing from the local Tongan community, including a family who moved to church with them to help cook dinner.
“That is part of our culture,” said Auckland-based Tevita Ngata, one of many members of the Tongan community who supported the team. “There is not too much pressure on one family because we all interfere, the whole community takes on the burden.”
With the Tonga border closed until at least June 12, more than three months since the team left the Islands, their inability to return has also placed huge strain on the people of Ha’apai.
“My wife looks after two children with one another on a trip and works all day in the hospital. “It’s very difficult not to be there for him,” said Vili Ngata, deputy team captain.
Players on the team play an important role in village life on the island of Ha’apai ‘, where Tevita Vakasiuola, the team doctor, is one of only two doctors in the region, and everyone hunts and collects food for their families.
Tevita Moni’s wife Vakasiuola told the Guardian that she struggled to look after their twins on Lifuka Island during her absence.
“This is a very difficult time for me with Tevita not here at the moment. He is the only one who works and he who gets food from the bush, “said Moni.
“We need boys to go fishing, to get taro, cassava and yams for pots. The government needs to open borders and bring our children home. “
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