AUCKLAND, March 26 — It was the adventure of a lifetime.
Before looking for a job, John Ho decided to fly to New Zealand and experience the beautiful country. The 23-year-old Malaysian, who has a degree in civil engineering, landed in Auckland on February 27, 2020.
He had only bought a one-way ticket as he planned to “wander and explore the place, and return when I feel like it. When I wanted to buy one, things got really tough.”
By Monday, March 23, everything changed.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the country had entered level 3 of the Covid-19 threat alert system; level 4 would commence at 11:59pm on Wednesday.
Ho panicked and tried getting the earliest flight back to Kuala Lumpur, which would have transited in Sydney.
Except that was a no-go since Australia had since closed its borders to non-nationals to enter or transit.
Ho said, “I got so desperate that I tried to reach out to the Australia embassy. Hoping that they would offer me a visa given the unique situation I was in. I knew my chances of getting one was slim to none but I couldn't imagine staying here alone since restaurants would be closed during the lockdown.”
While supermarkets would remain open during a level 4 lockdown, there will be no food takeaways and Ho had no access to cooking facilities as he was staying at a hostel.
“And of course my application got rejected. So I know I was left with no option. I saw flights get cancelled left and right.”
Ho also had to find a way to get home because he was running out of money and shelter was an issue.
He said, “I called MAS. But the lines were congested. Called the Malaysian High Commission in Wellington. No one picked up. I thought they had gone into lockdown already. So I did not bother trying again.”
Distraught, he decided to quickly get food supplies to be safe: “I was ready to face my reality at that time. I went to the supermarket and stocked up on some cup noodles. Milk and bread all sold out.”
Running out of ideas, Ho starting searching online for solutions or any help at all. Which was when he came across the article I wrote on being stranded in Auckland myself.
Ho recalled, “It was a relief to know I was not the only one facing the same situation.”
The article was posted on the Malaysians in Auckland Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1584073768340782/), which was where Esther Wee, a 53-year-old finance/office manager, first encountered news of her fellow countrymen stranded in New Zealand.
She said, “When I woke up on Wednesday and I read the ‘Stranded in Auckland’ Malay Mail article, my heart just went out to the two Malaysians stuck without a place to stay.”
Wee, who has been living in New Zealand for almost 17 years, immediately reached out to offer to help house my partner and me. It was a generous and unconditional gesture, incredibly kind in the face of adversity.
Fortunately by then the two of us had already secured safe shelter, so Dave Ananth, president of the New Zealand Malaysia Business Association (NZMBA) and the #ReachOut campaign, helped link up Ho with Wee instead.
On speed of news spreading and action taken, Wee observed, “We Malaysians here work very fast. We just spread the word like wildfire.”
Indeed everything happened swiftly, with the clock ticking away. Everyone was cognisant of the impending 11:59pm deadline that very day.
Wee wasted no time, leaving office right after work: “I went to pick him up from his hostel in Grafton. I got lost pusing-pusing but finally found him.”
The grateful young man was welcomed into Wee’s home where she cooked him the first truly home-cooked meal he'd had for weeks: fried tanghoon with minced chicken and mushrooms.
“Also with Nyonya chicken curry lah,” Wee added. “We were both so hungry! Best meal ever for both of us!”
Hoo was thankful for a hot dinner but also for a roof over his head and the company.
He explained, “It’s nice to be able to talk to people now. Cause of this pandemic, people rarely interact with each other at my hostel. And every morning when I wake up, most of my Malaysian friends are still asleep. So I just spent my mornings staring at the ceiling for the past few days.”
The two bonded quickly and easily. Wee notes that the young man was old enough to be her son, while Ho fondly calls her Aunty Esther.
Right now we are experiencing very challenging situations and we are also seeing how people can rise up to the challenge.
People like Wee, who jump in to help however they can. People like Ho, who discover reserves of resourcefulness and a will to survive somehow.
People who surprise themselves and inspire others.
Ho said, “The outpour of love and help from Malaysians in Auckland has opened up a new perspective for me — how far human kindness can go in times like these, even towards a stranger.”
Above all, he appreciates knowing that he isn’t alone. He said, “At one point my naïve mind thought I was the only one stuck here.”
During alert Level 4 in New Zealand, everyone has to isolate, keeping their distance aside from those in their “bubbles” or households.
Through the efforts of fellow Malaysians and their own, Wee and Ho have formed their own "bubble" to keep each other company during the lockdown.
Wee shared, “Our spirits here as fellow Malaysians are very, very high. I was sharing with John, it's because the majority of us haven't got families here. So when we hear Malaysians in trouble, we pounced like Mama Bear to help.”
1. For more updates, please visit the Malaysian High Commission in New Zealand’s Facebook page at https://m.facebook.com/malaysianHCNZ/
2. If you’re a Malaysian stranded in New Zealand and need accommodation, or you can help find accommodation for stranded Malaysians in New Zealand, please contact
the #ReachOut / New Zealand Malaysia Business Association (NZMBA) as follows:
- President Dave Ananth: +64 21 021 68888 (calls and WhatsApp)
- Secretary Pam Louis: +64 22 085 6608 (WhatsApp only)