How a Christchurch nurse fought to bring her baby to NZ

Baby Harbaaz was 5 months old when he left New Zealand shortly before a pandemic closed the border. He had the green light from Immigration to enter during the lockdown, but no one could take him.

It was last call for passengers and the clock was ticking. Rajdeep Kaur Dhaliwal was at the departure gate of Auckland International Airport wishing time would stop, a baby boy fast asleep in her arms.

She had been crying since she woke up that morning in December 2019, dressing her son Harbaaz and packing what he would need for his first flight on an plane. He was going without her.

“My husband was saying ‘Give him to Mum, they’re getting late’,” said Rajdeep. “I was like no, no, I don’t want to.”

The whole family was in tears but reassured one another it would be all right, they would be back in no time. Rajdeep handed her sleeping baby to her mother-in-law, and the rest was a blur.

She didn’t know it would two years before she would be able to hold her baby again.

Rajdeep’s family ultimately became one of thousands of migrant families separated by an extraordinary border closure to stem the outbreak of the coronavirus that entered New Zealand in 2020. The rigid border was part of an elimination policy that would serve the country well, defending its population of 5 million in the first year of a raging pandemic that would go on to overwhelm public health systems and kill millions around the world.

Migrants on temporary visas who were not in New Zealand at the time were caught out. Immigration New Zealand says this data is not held in a reportable format so the number of migrant families separated by the border closure may never be known. But the agency says it has received tens of thousands of appeals from people desperate to enter.

Over their long months of separation, Rajdeep would often wonder if sending Harbaaz to India was the worst decision of her life. “Why did I do it? We have no one to blame but ourselves.”

The Kiwi dream looms large for many in India, one of New Zealand’s biggest sources of international students.

A trained nurse from the city of Jalandhar in India’s Punjab state, Rajdeep and her husband Sarbjit gave up their comfortable middle-class lives to seek out the dream in 2017.

They came, studied and worked for three years in Auckland, where Harbaaz was born in 2019. He was five and a half months old when the family had to move. Rajdeep was offered a place at Ara Institute in Christchurch to obtain her qualification as an enrolled nurse, bringing the family one step closer to their residency dream as the family of a critical health worker.

The Dhaliwals had no friends or connections in Christchurch and would have to find a place to live and a job for Sarbjit so they could pay the bills while Rajdeep studied full-time for three months.

The couple made the difficult decision to send Harbaaz to India to be cared for by his grandparents. They were already in Auckland helping to care for the baby since he was born, and were heading home at the end of their six-month stay on visitor visas.

“I still miss those days when we were all together, those six months were gone so fast,” Rajdeep recalled.

Harbaaz and his grandparents left New Zealand on Boxing Day, 2019. The plan was to go and get him at the end of Rajdeep’s nursing course in April or May. Four or five months at most and they would be more or less settled in Christchurch by then, she thought.

No one thought Covid would happen.

On March 19, 2020 at 11.59pm, the New Zealand border closed to anyone who was not a citizen or permanent resident.

The Dhaliwals were still waiting to file their residency application at the time, which would eventually get stuck in a ballooning backlog as the pandemic progressed. As temporary visa holders, there was no guarantee they would be allowed to return if they left the country to get Harbaaz.

They had invested into their lives here, spending upwards of $40,000 on education, expenses and flights. They wanted to stay and give Harbaaz a brighter future, see him grow up in a country free from systemic corruption and pollution. Friends and family advised them to be patient, wait it out.

Rajdeep went on to qualify as an enrolled nurse and started work at the St John of God Halswell residential care home in Christchurch, while Sarbjit worked as truck driver at a steel company. The couple worked through lockdown as essential workers, sometimes double shifts, fending off depression and waiting for the border to reopen.

The young parents copped criticism from a small number of friends and relatives who thought they were selfish or money-minded to send their baby away.

In September 2020, they applied for Harbaaz to enter New Zealand as the child of a critical health worker. The border was closed but exceptions could be granted for people considered to have a critical purpose to enter. Immigration approved the application the same day.

Harbaaz was just 11 months old. The long-haul journey from Patiala to Christchurch could take up to two days including transit. How would he travel? Who would feed him, hold him, and change his nappy on the plane? The impossibilities dogged Rajdeep. Someone suggested asking the flight attendants to look after him, which she thought ludicrous. “I can’t take that risk.”

They sat and waited, and could not see the light at the end of the tunnel.

It hurt Rajdeep to think she wasn’t there for all his milestones – teething, sitting up, crawling, his first steps. “Two years, I missed everything, his childhood memories,” she said. She wasn’t there for his birthdays. “I spent them crying, all day.”

The times Harbaaz fell sick were the hardest. In August 2021 he was sent to hospital a third time for vomiting and diarrhoea, hardly eating for a month after his discharge. He was so weak he couldn’t walk and had no interest in the video calls that meant everything to his mother.

Harbaaz had turned 2 but still wore the clothes of a 1-year-old.

“He’s still not eating, he doesn’t like food at all. I see my family [in India] struggle to make him eat,” said Rajdeep, telling herself she should be there as well, trying. “That’s my big regret, I wasn’t able to provide.”

Desperate, Rajdeep posted a last-ditch plea on Facebook asking for someone – anyone she could trust to bring her baby to New Zealand. Many responded with sympathy, others said they were in the same boat. No one had a solution.

The same month, she applied to Immigration for a border exception on humanitarian grounds for Harbaaz’s grandmother to travel with him. Everyone around them said it wasn’t possible, including the immigration advisers they sought out. Rajdeep told herself, one last time. If it failed, she would give up and go back to India to get her baby.

A few weeks later, her phone beeped at work. She took it out of the pocket of her nursing uniform. An email from Immigration.

The nurse sat down in a corner with a friend and colleague, her heart beating fast. “My friend said, ‘Open it!’ “

She did and the two women jumped up and down. Rajdeep was crying and laughing at the same time, going to every room in the care home to tell colleagues and residents the good news. “Most of them started crying with me. I was running around, so happy.”

It would be another two months before they would see each other. Rajdeep couldn’t wait but was equally terrified of the day. “He might not come to me,” she said. He called her mama on video calls but she knew he felt differently. “For him, I’m not his mother.”

In November Harbaaz and his grandmother left India for Dubai, a “green zone” where they stayed for 14 days as part of Covid travel requirements. They landed in New Zealand and stayed in a quarantine hotel for seven days before they went home for another three days of home isolation.

The family were reunited in early December, nearly two years from the day they said goodbye.

“I feel like our family is complete now,” Rajdeep said, speaking to the Herald nearly a week after Harbaaz came home.

She had burst into tears when she first saw him. “I was crying like mad. He’s [staring at me] like, what’s happening, why is she crying?

“I showed him the car keys and said, let’s go?” She knew her boy was crazy about cars. “And he jumped to me.”

The 29-year-old nurse takes heart in the fact that Harbaaz is a spoiled, happy child with no idea what his parents have gone through on the other side of the world.

She had poured her heart out in her border exception applications. “Put as much information and feelings, everything you can, because the Immigration person who’s going to read it is also human. They are not machines,” she said. “Let them understand how broken you are.”

Border exceptions in numbers

According to Immigration New Zealand, 15,458 people (2701 approved) have requested a border exception under the “family of a temporary visa holder category” as ofNovember 2, 2021.

Under the “humanitarian” category, 27,753 people (3373 approved) made requests.

The numbers are not unique individuals, as people who make more than one request are counted each time.

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