‘Bring our boys back home’: rugby team from Tonga trapped in New Zealand due to Covid-19 | World news

For the past six weeks, the days have followed a particular pattern for the players and coaching staff of the Tu’uakitau rugby team from Tonga.

They get up from their beds – mattresses on the floor of a church in Auckland where they are locked down – pray, sing hymns, eat a breakfast made of donated food, and then train.

The 29-strong squad is stuck 2,000km from their home in Tonga, stranded in New Zealand after their Pacific home shut its borders to all travellers, including citizens.

The team from Ha’apai, a remote cluster of islands in central Tonga, arrived in New Zealand on 3 March, intending to spend a month playing club rugby teams around the North Island, before heading home.

Team Tu’uakitau had spent months preparing for the trip, training, and fundraising. Players were hoping to be scouted for contracts on New Zealand teams; a potential pathway to residency for them and their families.

A week and a half into the tour, opposition coaches began calling to cancel their upcoming games and they realised the gravity of the Covid-19 situation.

Tu’uakitau Ha’apai rugby team coach Tuivaita Ueleni watches the team training. They have been stuck in Auckland, New Zealand, since the beginning of March because of coronavirus. Photograph: Peter Meecham/The Guardian

“We had $5,000 left in our bank account so we spent all of that to change our flight to go home,” said Tuivaita Ueleni, Tu’uakitau head coach.

The flight was booked for 23 March, three weeks after the team arrived and two days before New Zealand’s level-four lockdown began.

“We arrived at the airport and were getting ready to fly away and that’s when we found out that we couldn’t go back,” said Ueleni.

The Tongan government had made the decision to shut its border, with all scheduled flights to be diverted to neighbouring island nations. This left the 29-strong squad of players and coaches facing an impending nationwide lockdown with limited options, and rapidly dwindling funds.

“We arrived back at the Tokaikolo ‘ia Kalaisi church with no money in our pockets and the people from the church offered us to stay for free,” said Ueleni.

Church members quickly turned the hall of worship into makeshift housing for the team, spreading mattresses across the floor and erecting a volleyball net in the yard to keep them entertained during lockdown.

“Nine of the team volunteered to stay with friends or relatives around the city and the 20 of us have been in the church ever since,” said Tevita Vakasiuola, team doctor and assistant coach.

To occupy the long days in the church the team has been singing a lot, filling the cavernous hall with their well-practised harmonies.

“Every day we pray together and sing hymns. The boys joke that by the time we get home we’ll know every hymn there is,” said Ueleni.

Their daily routine has also involved runs up the neighbouring Māngare Mountain, tending to the church gardens, volleyball, and then more prayer again.

Tu’uakitau’s 29 members are among the estimated thousands of Pasifika people stuck in New Zealand due to border closures.

New Zealand traditionally depends on seasonal workforces from Tonga, Samoa, and Vanuatu, but with borders closed and work dried up, many foreign nationals have found themselves stranded without a clear understanding of when they can head home.

The Tu’uakitau Ha’apai rugby team are desperate to return to Tonga, which closed its borders to protect itself from Covid-19.

The Tu’uakitau Ha’apai rugby team are desperate to return to Tonga, which closed its borders to protect itself from Covid-19. Photograph: Peter Meecham/The Guardian

“We have a number of Pasifika people up and down the country who were here on working visas but are no longer able to work and aren’t able to access government support,” said Debbie Sorenson, CEO of Pasifika Futures, a charitable organisation which has helped provide food and shelter to more than 250 stranded Pasifika people.

In their temporary home in South Auckland, team Tu’uakitau is surviving on donations until Air New Zealand refunds the last of the money they spent on the flight change. So far they’ve been flooded with masses of food and warm clothing from the local Tongan community, including one family who moved into the church with them to help cook dinners.

“It’s part of our culture,” said Auckland-based Tevita Ngata, one of the many members of the Tongan community supporting the team. “There’s not too much strain on any one family because we all pitch in, the whole community takes on the load.”

With Tongan borders closed until at least 12 June, more than three months since the team left the Islands, their inability to return has also putting a huge strain on the community back in Ha’apai.

“My wife is looking after two kids with another on the way and is working all day at the hospital. It’s very hard not being there for her,” said Vili Ngata, the team’s vice-captain.

Players on the team play a significant role in village life on the islands of Ha’apai’, where Tevita Vakasiuola, the team doctor, is one of only two doctors in the region, and all men hunt and gather food for their families.

Tevita’s wife Moni Vakasiuola told the Guardian that she is struggling to look after their young twins on the island of Lifuka in his absence.

“It’s a very tough time for me with Tevita not here at the moment. He is the only one working and he’s the one that gets the food from the bush,” said Moni.

“We need the boys to go out to fish, to get the taro, cassava and yam for the pot. The government needs to open up the border and bring our boys back home.”

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