Family lives in fear of deportation

17:00, May 11 2012
Cherie Vermaak
OPPORTUNITY: Cherie Vermaak has been given one last chance to stay in New Zealand.

A South African family that has been "fighting an immigration battle for the past five years" is now unlawfully living in Christchurch and says imminent deportation is more frightening than sleeping on the streets.

Cherie Vermaak, 42, worked for the Christchurch City Council for four years and lost her job in March when her application for a working-visa extension was declined by Immigration New Zealand (INZ).

She could not afford to pay rent next week and had been slowly selling "everything I own" to feed her two teenage children, Kyle, 19 and Zelda, 16.

Despite "pleading" for help from agencies, the family was not eligible for Government support because they did not have residency, nor could they temporarily sleep in their car because that had also been sold.

With the city's deepening housing crisis and their lack of a visa, the only option the family had was to sleep in the shed of a former colleague.

"I can't afford to break down or crack up because what do my kids do? At night, when they go to bed, I have my rants and cries. The scariest part is we could be deported. We would rather face homelessness in Christchurch than be sent back to South Africa."

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The family fled the country fearing for their safety in 2007. Life in Christchurch had been "amazing" in comparison and the family had applied for residency in 2010 but was declined when documents were lost in transit.

Ten weeks ago their Kiwi life was turned upside-down.

Vermaak had worked for the council since 2007 and after the February earthquake she volunteered at welfare shelters.

On March 5 she was offered a permanent position with the regulations and democracy department, a job she had been waiting five years for.

Knowing her family's visas were due to expire at the end of the month, she filed an application for an extension.

Two days before the family's deadline, she received a request from INZ for a renewal of police clearances and medical checkups.

Vermaak begged for an extension but was told "it wasn't their policy to renew a visa without updated documents".

She had since lost her job, her daughter had to leave Burnside High School, some nights the family had gone hungry, and nearly all of their furniture had been sold.

Friends and the community had kept the family afloat. "I'm usually the one giving the help to people, and it's really hard to ask for help because I know there are people in worse situations than us."

She hoped INZ would allow her time before her family was deported.

"I do understand the processes. But I don't know what more I can do to make people see we are actually worth having here."

INZ said it would contact Vermaak next week to discuss her options.

The Press