A South African woman and her family are facing deportation after the New Zealand government deemed her too fat.
Mondelea Bezuidenhout (35) – who immigrated to New Zealand from Gqeberha with her husband, Donovan (34), and kids, Donna (now 10) and Damien (now 3), in 2018 – could be forced to return to SA after an immigration medical assessment determined her body mass index (BMI) put her in a “severe-risk” category.
The judgement means Mondelea and her family won’t get residency in the country anytime soon.
“I was absolutely devasted when I first heard,” Mondelea, who has a BMI of 47,8, tells YOU from her home in Palmerston North. “This was all in my hands and it made me feel horrible, to be honest. Some nights I felt like I just didn’t want to be here anymore. It was a dark time.”
The Bezuidenhout family immigrated to New Zealand after Donavan, who is a high-voltage electrician, was offered a job.
When the couple, who have been married for 13 years, applied for their work visas, Mondelea weighed 150 kg. Their visa application made no mention of BMI requirements, she says.
“There was nothing they said about, ‘Oh, if you want to apply you need to be a certain weight’. I have heard about the BMI situation, but nothing was confirmed to me, so I thought maybe it was just stories.
“Nowhere on the immigration website does it say anything about a set BMI – it just says you must be in good health.”
More than a year after living and working in New
Zealand, Mondelea and Donovan decided to apply for residency.
Six months after applying, an immigration officer contacted them, asking for basic information such as proof of their relationship, proof of their joint account and proof that they live in the same home.
“We only heard back from them on 18 May 2020,” she recalls. “Then they asked for a report from my doctor but they didn’t say anything about my BMI – they just asked for extra documents from the doctors.”
Mondelea, who works as a customer service representative for a government agency, submitted her health information, including her weight.
She then heard back from the immigration officer, who said her weight was “due to BMI”. “They gave me three months to seek lifestyle changes,” she says, adding that she already was on a weight-loss journey before receiving the news.
“I’ve always eaten quite healthily. A lot of people think that when you’re fat, you just eat the whole time but it’s not the case,” she says.
Since the verdict from the immigration office, Mondelea has lost 15,5 kg after adopting a strict meal plan and started to gym three times a week.
Her doctor has also written up a report, in which he states she is in good health.
Despite this, the immigration office is still deeming her “not of acceptable health standard”.
“They say I will be a risk for the public health system. It’s kind of like they are playing God, to be honest, but I can also understand that that’s just how they work things out,” she says.
During an interview with Stuff website, an immigration
spokesperson says that “obesity alone was not grounds for declining a residency
application. But a gallbladder removal in 2013 and tension headaches, which had
required surgery, was evidence her obesity would be costly on the public health
“My gallbladder removal happened in 2013 in South Africa,” Mondelea confirms, “but that wasn’t to say it was obesity-related. But again, everything is obesity-related when you’re obese, unfortunately.”
The reality that they might be returning to South Africa is “scary” for the mom and her family, especially now that they’ve settled into New Zealand and the kids are happy at their schools.
“Where do we go back to? We’d be going back to nothing. How are we going to find jobs?
“We don’t have a house to live in anymore, we sold everything,” she says.
Mondelea and her husband have now sent through an
appeal to the Immigration & Protection Tribunal of New Zealand in hopes
that they will overturn their decision. In the meantime, the family has been
granted an interim visa, which will see them stay in New Zealand for six more
“A lot of people think that when you’re obese you don’t speak up because you don’t have confidence, you’re shy and you’re oppressed and you’re depressed and you don’t want to speak to people,” Mondelea says.
“I am not afraid; I can do anything that anyone else can do. My fat doesn’t take anything away from me.”