Migrant’s mission to give back

Sunitha Karunakaran. PHOTO: PHILIP CHANDLER
Sunitha Karunakaran. PHOTO: PHILIP CHANDLER
Queenstown's been enriched by the contributions of many individuals from many different cultures.

One such is Malaysian Indian Sunitha Karunakaran, 45, who moved here 19 years ago and has sought to repay her gratitude to this community through unstinting voluntary work.

Sunitha, her husband and her then 14-month-old daughter came here in the footsteps of her parents, who arrived almost four years earlier, and her sister, who arrived eight months earlier.

She thinks her dad, Karu Kuppusamy, was quite brave moving here when he was 49 and unskilled, but says he and his wife came for a better life as Indians weren’t well treated in their Malaysian homeland.

Kuppusamy became well known as an ever-smiling street cleaner, and gained his residency with the backing of the then-mayor, police and shop owners.

After her parents came to Queenstown, Sunitha visited them for three months while pregnant with her daughter, housekeeping to earn money to return home.

However, being a new mother back in Malaysia, she says she became depressed as she missed her parents so much.

On arriving, she took only six months to gain residency as her husband, Panniar Selvam Moorthi, as a chef, was a skilled worker.

Sunitha joined Kiwibank as a teller, then became a home loan specialist for seven years.

Meantime, she’d started volunteering, initially with Baskets of Blessing, then the Let’s Eat programme, preparing and delivering meals for those in need.

In 2017 she co-founded the Lakes District Multicultural Council (LDMC), becoming secretary/treasurer and admin manager — the Multicultural Federation of NZ later recognised her with a community service award.

In 2018 she also founded the Queenstown Malaysian/Singaporean/Bruneian group, which now has 180-plus members, to foster cultural exchange.

She says she put 15 to 20 hours a week into volunteer roles on top of full-time work.

When Covid struck in 2020, impacting Queenstown’s migrant community, in particular, the LDMC received a lot of funding from Ministry of Social Development and some from Lotteries.

Sunitha spearheaded several initiatives to support migrants with essential services as well as starting a baking group and dance classes.

"I used to go house to house to talk to people regarding what their needs were."

By 2021, she was working for the council’s customer service team when she suffered a deep concussion after someone crashed into her car while stationary at a roundabout — incapacitated, she was then off work for two-and-a-half years.

Meanwhile, in another drama in 2022, her daughter, then 18, was advised to urgently seek hospital treatment after blood tests revealed concerning white and red blood cell counts.

Sunitha then spent three hours in a portacom at Lakes District Hospital (LDH) without her daughter being seen by anyone.

Next day, with her oxygen levels down to 20%, her daughter was choppered to Dunedin where she had three days in ICU with bacterial strep pneumonia.

Sunitha’s frustrated she still hasn’t had a result from her complaint to the Health and Disability Commissioner, but she’s heard conditions are better at LDH, "which I’m really pleased about because I wanted to fight this not for myself but for our community".

"It was a trying time, however it’s a part of my journey that has only strengthened my resolve and resilience as a mother and a member of the community."

Since returning to the workforce, she’s not found full-time work but has four part-time jobs instead.

She has two merchandising jobs and takes stitch classes at two schools.

During her time off she found a passion for art which has led to her fourth job — a small business, Jimmikikammalnz, specialising in unique handmade products.

"The venture received overwhelming support from the Queenstown community, which encouraged me to expand my entrepreneurial endeavours with the recent launch of Charm Cart, an online store offering my distinctive creations."

Meanwhile, LDMC’s ceased running after other two office-holders left town, however Sunitha says other groups have picked up the slack.

The mother-of-two’s thrilled her family, her parents and her sister’s family live close to each other in Shotover Country — "we always count the 10 of us as one family".

"If you come to my house, it’s Malaysia inside, only outside is Queenstown.

"Queenstown holds a special place in my heart, not only for its breathtaking vistas but also for its safe environment and welcoming community.

"It is this sense of belonging and gratitude that drives my commitment to giving back to the community that has welcomed my family with open arms and supported us on our journey to a better life."