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Return of the relatives – families reunite after years of separation

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With ever-changing COVID-19 travel regulations, family reunions have been repeatedly delayed. Now that most international borders have reopened, many are finally getting the chance to see their loved ones after years of being apart.

They say the three most stressful events in life are the death of a loved one, divorce, and moving. “I’d say COVID-19 travel should be placed above moving – it’s extremely stressful,” says Kim Kur. Kur is the founder of Community Circle Home SA, a Facebook group that assists people from many countries to navigate the rollercoaster of rules around travel to and from South Africa during the pandemic.

“You still can’t fly into South Africa without a negative PCR test unless you get a special exemption,” she says. “What people go through when they have to travel – the anxiety, the tears, this still hasn’t stopped.”

This is especially true for those longing to see their families after a lengthy separation, or to reunite for a special occasion. “A lady living in Scotland, phoned me two weeks ago asking how to get into South Africa for her mom’s surprise 85th birthday party,” says Kur. The whole family was coming from around the country and her arrival was going to be a surprise.

But then she tested positive for COVID-19, even though she felt fine and had recently recovered from the virus. Kur realised that the woman was still testing positive from a previous infection – a PCR or antigen test can be positive for up to three months after an infection. Kur referred her to a South African doctor who wrote her a letter stating that she didn’t have symptoms and had met the isolation requirements. She was granted an exemption to travel, and made the trip.

“When I told her I could help, she burst into tears and was barely able to speak,” recalls Kur. “I asked what was wrong and she asked, ‘Why are you being so nice to me’? I said, ‘I’m not being nice, I’m just helping you’, and she said, ‘Nobody helps anybody’. That’s not true, and I had to show her that. That’s the beauty of the group, I watch strangers helping each other all the time.” Kur herself has dedicated much of her already busy schedule to voluntarily helping travellers. Why? “If I stop doing what I’m doing, you don’t get here,” she states.

Luckily, there are people and organisations around the world that show similar commitment. One such organisation is Yad L’Olim, an Israeli olim advocacy organisation that’s been fighting for the rights of olim to reconnect with their families during the COVID-19 crisis. It was with its help that Justine Montrose and her family were able to make it to South Africa in time for her brother’s January wedding.

“For about two months before the wedding, my husband, Yossi, and I had gone back and forth so many times about whether to book tickets or to wait,” she says. “It was mentally exhausting. We were so determined to get there, but with South Africa being on the red list, it wasn’t looking good at all.”

They eventually resigned themselves to the fact that they wouldn’t make the simcha. “Then I got an email from Dov Lipman, the founder and chief executive of Yad L’Olim, saying that South Africa would be taken off the red list on 9 January,” says Montrose. “So, we made the last-minute decision to take a chance. We booked our flights on 7 January and arrived in South Africa on the 11th, a few days before the wedding. It was surreal because a week before we landed, we had no hope of actually going and I was feeling so heartbroken that I was going to miss my only sibling’s special day.”

Aside from their joy at being able to attend the wedding, the couple were also thrilled to be able to reunite their two young sons with all their grandparents. “We’d last seen our families when we said goodbye to them at the airport in September 2019, the day we made aliya,” recalls Montrose. “We moved when our youngest was only 14 months, so our families knew him only as a baby. They missed watching him grow up, take his first steps, and get to watch him become the child he is today.”

Though they did their best to schedule video calls and include their parents in birthday parties over Zoom, there’s no replacing that in-person contact. “That’s why arriving back in South Africa was so emotional for all of us. My in-laws and parents stood there in complete disbelief that we actually made it, and they were so excited and overwhelmed to see their grandchildren and get to know them properly.”

The family also spent time in the Pilanesberg, one of the Montrose’s favourite places. They saw friends and even reunited with their beloved dog, who they had rehomed before emigrating. COVID-19 challenges struck again when Yossi tested positive just before they were due to fly back to Israel. In spite of his lack of symptoms, they were unable to return in line with Emirates Airline’s COVID-19 policies, and could get a flight only two weeks later. “We made the decision to embrace the situation and extend our trip.”

For Trevor Levy, finally seeing his Australian-based sister, Wendy Yudelman, after six years was an amazing experience. Though the separation was hard on Levy and all his siblings, it was their parents who felt the distance most acutely. “Neither of my parents had seen my sister for two or three years and if not for COVID-19, my mom and possibly my dad would have gone to visit her,” he says. “She has three children and before COVID-19, neither of my parents had gone so long without visiting their grandchildren.”

The lifting of travel restrictions finally gave Yudelman the chance to reunite with her entire family. She also brought her eldest child along. The lengthy separation – exacerbated by COVID-19 restrictions – has spurred her decision to visit more frequently. “She said she wants to come more often – every year, if possible,” says Levy.

“It felt great to spend time with my sister again. It was quite emotional really, especially saying goodbye. I would say that the most special part was the four of us – my sister, my two brothers, and myself – spending time together for the first time in six years. Hopefully, the next time will be much sooner.”

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