Lankan family in NZ granted residency after eight-year battle

Sam and Dinesha Wijerathne with their children.

A year after they pleaded to avoid deportation to Sri Lanka, a family in Queenstown, New Zealand, has been granted residency and are giving back to the community that supported them.

“I am overjoyed,” Dinesha Wijerathne said, now working as a chef at the community project ‘Let’s Eat’.

Her husband Sam Wijerathne, a taxi driver, said they had struggled for eight years to reach a point of certainty for their family.

“We came here for a better life for our kids. It has been a hard life, but now the boys are doing their school work,” he said.

The couple and their three primary school-aged boys had lived, worked and studied in New Zealand for eight years when their world fell apart.

As they went through the residency application process, Dinesha Wijerathne, the primary visa holder, was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and was unable to work.

Their working visa applications were then declined and the future looked grim. However, their story touched the hearts of many people.

Queenstown Primary School was amongst the first to rally behind them. Tam Schurmann and the charity ‘Baskets of Blessings’ became involved after hearing of their situation.

Hamish Walker, a local MP there, had also stepped in to help. He assisted them to appeal to the Immigration and Protection Tribunal, buying time for the family before requesting the Immigration Minister to intervene.

From the beginning, Walker promised the family he would do everything he could to keep them in New Zealand, but knew the odds were against them. “We didn’t have long at the time. They were weeks away from being deported,” he said. But the incredible public support was a key factor, Walker added.

Schurmann first met the family when Dinesha Wijerathne was nominated for a gift basket through Baskets of Blessing.

“When that was delivered, we realised there was a far greater need. We put the word out to the greater community, that they were unable to work and couldn’t put food on the table,” he said.

“We were overwhelmed with unconditional love: from single mothers dropping off half of their weekly groceries to residents from all walks of life,” Dinesha said, “The community fed my family for about eight months.”

When Dinesha Wijerathne was given permission to work, her condition was making it difficult for her to work full-time as a chef in a traditional kitchen.

However, she was “snapped up” by the Presbyterian Churches of the Wakatipu as the catering manager for their free Pasta Cafe and similar initiatives, Schurmann said.

The role has broadened with the introduction of the Let’s Eat programme, another charity initiated by Schurmann, cooking up 400 frozen meals each week for distribution in the community, using food surpluses provided by supermarkets.

“Dinesha oversees menu design, stock take, and food safety... The most difficult thing is seeing what food she has to work with in the morning, and coming up with simple recipes for the volunteers to make,” Schurmann added.

The family still has a difficult road ahead. Dinesha Wijerathne’s health is challenging, they have a $30,000 bill to pay to immigration lawyers, and they are living in a one-bedroom room in the former Queenstown Holiday Park; but Walker believes they deserve to stay.

“They have been tax payers in New Zealand for several years and I have no doubt the three boys will go on to became great New Zealanders in whatever field they choose,” Schurmann said.

One of them, 12-year-old Subath, knows what he will be: a Black Cap. (Stuff)

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