Samoan family stuck in makeshift, mosquito-ridden tent - 'through no fault of their own'

The Fa'avale family didn't want their faces shown in photos because they were worried about being recognised at church.
AMANDA SAXTON/FAIRFAX NZ

The Fa'avale family didn't want their faces shown in photos because they were worried about being recognised at church.

A four-year-old boy crawls from bed naked, except for some spiderman socks, his skin inflamed and flaking.

He's whimpering from the pain of his eczema and because he doesn't understand why he lives in a makeshift tent when a proper house is just two metres away, explained his mum Tofa.

The tent is tightly stacked with a household's worth of furniture, including a double mattress the boy shares with his parents. His 10-year-old brother sleeps in the nearby house.

Everything the Fa'avale family own is squeezed under their tarp; leaking and condensation make it permanently damp.
AMANDA SAXTON/FAIRFAX NZ

Everything the Fa'avale family own is squeezed under their tarp; leaking and condensation make it permanently damp.

A culmination of bad luck and misunderstanding has seen the Fa'avale family homeless since the start of 2017.

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Originally from Samoa, 45-year-old Salati Fa'avale had been working as a sand blaster in west Auckland when his eyes were injured on the job. Unable to see properly and with waiting list of months before his operation, he resigned in September.

Salati and Tofa Fa'avale share a double mattress with their four-year-old son and his toy lion inside their tent.
AMANDA SAXTON/FAIRFAX NZ

Salati and Tofa Fa'avale share a double mattress with their four-year-old son and his toy lion inside their tent.

He and his wife Tofa spoke limited English and required - but couldn't always access - a translator deal with official paperwork.

Salati was unaware he could be entitled to compensation for loss of earnings under ACC. 

He applied for the jobseekers benefit, which wasn't enough to cover debt repayments. The Fa'avales became homeless on December 31.

Their tent - a tarpaulin draped over crude metal beams - was in the back garden of a friend's house.
AMANDA SAXTON/FAIRFAX NZ

Their tent - a tarpaulin draped over crude metal beams - was in the back garden of a friend's house.

An acquaintance from church offered the family crude poles and a large tarpaulin to use for shelter on their back lawn.

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Local MP Carmel Sepuloni informed WINZ of the Fa'avale's situation last week, which got them a high priority rating on the social housing register.

"This family came here with aspirations and have tried to do everything right," she said. "But their lives unravelled through no fault of their own."

"A lot of migrants arriving here don't understand a lot of things - they think they do, but they don't and this needs to be taken into consideration more by agencies meant to help them."

The Fa'avales arrived in New Zealand almost three years ago under the Samoan quota residency scheme.

Salati quickly found a job and rented a house in Glendene, where his kids went to school and the family were involved with church.

But finances got tight when they took out a loan to buy a $1,800 car - Salati didn't understand interest rates - and then felt compelled to send money to Samoa for an uncle's funeral.

Then came the sandblasting incident - Salati's eyes remain bloodshot, weepy, and double visioned. On the same day he was due in hospital for his operation, the family got evicted.

Life under the tarp was damp, mosquito-ridden, and shameful said Tofa. Support from WINZ barely covered her family's food and debt repayments.

She found New Zealand's bureaucracy confusing and isolating, in contrast to the more ad hoc systems of her homeland.

Nevertheless Tofa and Salati agreed New Zealand was the best place for their kids' future.

Salati said he was optimistic their situation could only get better. He also found comfort in thinking that Jesus was born in a stable, "a bit like this tent".​

 - Sunday Star Times

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