Disabled Russian wins battle for work visa after graduation

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Living with a disability is challenging, but it has proven to be even more difficult for Eugene Liapin. The Russian has a disease called Kugelberg-Welander syndrome type 3, a rare form of spinal muscular atrophy that has permanently confined him to a wheelchair.

Now that he lives in New Zealand, he has to fight hard for his work visa because of the Immigration claims to him “likely to create significant costs and demands on New Zealand health services.” This came after his doctor in New Zealand said his condition was stable and would pose no more risks than any other person entering the country.

Liapin chose to study in New Zealand because of the affordable tuition fees. Source: Eugene Liapin

This prompted Liapin to share his story on social media, which caught the attention of major news outlets. He was eventually invited to reapply for his post-work study visa – and won.

We talk to the Russian graduate about life in New Zealand as a disabled person and the challenges he has faced:

What made you decide to study abroad?

I have lived all my life with my wife in Moscow, the capital of Russia, graduating as a performing arts producer. After that, I wanted to have an international experience and really wanted to do public relations, so I ended up at the University of Waikato in New Zealand.

My wife and I wanted a new experience and we researched English speaking countries like Australia, the US and the UK. However, New Zealand was the more affordable in terms of tuition fees. Another thing was the warmer climate and wheelchair accessibility.

live in new zealand

Accessibility is still a problem for wheelchair user Liapin in New Zealand. Source: Eugene Liapin

What do you like best about living in New Zealand?

I would say the friendliness of the people and how open-minded they are. I have the feeling that there is less judgment here so that I can be more myself.

Accompany us through the Kugelberg-Welander syndrome type 3 and your challenges.

So I use a wheelchair because I have weak muscles. My wife takes me from place to place with a lifting platform.

I used to try to study in Hawaii and that changed because I wasn’t interested in the program, but these days most places do a great job of being more accessible. Sometimes it is a challenge when doors have to be opened manually and I have to ask someone to help me.

Otherwise I would say that universities are easily accessible for wheelchair users. For example, in tests they provide a person to handwrite your answers if you have difficulty doing so.

Can you tell us a bit about your hometown?

Well, Moscow is a huge city and a very historical place. The Bolshoi Theater on Red Square is in the middle of the city, where you can also enjoy many different styles of architecture. It’s also one of the best places to go in terms of cultural and art performances so theater is a must there.

How about exploring New Zealand? Is there a place that caught your eye in particular?

I would say that living in New Zealand is a bit of a challenge for people with disabilities and wheelchair users in terms of exploration. The cities are accessible, but there is a big problem moving from one city to another here.

live in new zealand

Understanding the kiwi accent is still a challenge for Liapin. Source: Eugene Liapin

The intercity buses are not wheelchair accessible, so it is harder to get outside of the cities, which can be a little frustrating. Outside the cities there are many places to visit, such as the Opal Lake, the fjords and forests.

Since my wife and I do not own a car and there is no public transport, it is disappointing not to be able to visit such places. However, I was in the mountains and that struck me.

Plus, Wellington has the feel of a big city with lots of good restaurants, a great waterfront, and lots of activities.

What about the local food compared to at home? What is your favorite food?

Of course, home cooking is home cooking, and when you’re far away you get homesick. Once a week we try to make Russian pancakes because it takes me back to my childhood memories.

As for food in New Zealand, the great thing about it is that it is very multicultural so you can find a whole range of cuisines. I would say fish and chips (which is actually British) is a favorite – but I also love junk food.

I have never tried Indian food before living in New Zealand and thought it was too spicy for me. But after my wife and I tried Chicken Tikka Masala (fried chicken in curry sauce), we fell in love with it (before that, I was a vegetarian for five years!).

What about the English language barrier? Was that difficult to overcome?

As mentioned, New Zealanders are quite friendly, but the biggest challenge is their accent – they have a pretty interesting accent that you won’t understand for the first few weeks. Most foreigners learn English through movies, which are usually American or British, and the people here have a unique pronunciation. They also use a lot of slang and Maori words.

Do you have plans to work or do further training there?

After we graduated here, as you know, we had an immigration situation. They thought I was a burden on the local health system, which I think is unfair. For a couple of months I struggled to overcome this obstacle, but it was quite a struggle.

Now I work at the University of Waikato as a tutor who provides support and guidance to students and leads tutorials. It’s interesting because half of my students are Kiwis and the other half are Chinese.

It was a great experience to understand how to work with different nations and nationalities. Regarding living in New Zealand, my wife and I plan to stay here for maybe a year or so to make money and save before moving on to Europe.

It all depends on the next steps to renew our certificates and find educational programs there.

What is your advice to international students who want to study in New Zealand?

For me, it’s all about immersion. I watch local vloggers here to understand the local mentality, the pronunciation of the words and the way of life.

You need to be prepared for this, but don’t worry. New Zealanders are happy to help you with anything if you just ask. Also, be aware that long flights to your home town can be quite expensive, and the time zone leaves you only a few hours to keep in touch with your friends and family remotely.

Although this is frustrating, I’m glad I can talk to my wife every day and that makes everything a lot easier.

live in new zealand

“The intercity buses are not wheelchair accessible, so it is more difficult to get out of the cities, which can be a bit frustrating,” says Liapin. Source: Eugene Liapin

Do you have budget advice for students abroad?

The biggest piece of advice is to save as much money as you can before going abroad as you may not find enough time to work during your studies – priorities include room and board as they are the biggest cost of your budget.

For a month with 100 New Zealand dollars, that would be 10 days of food for my wife and me.

Finally, can you share three fun facts about yourself?

My wife saw my X-ray before seeing my photo because she was a doctor in Moscow, a fun memory.

I swear a lot and it’s actually illegal in New Zealand. But there are so many emotions for different situations. Sometimes when I use an inappropriate language, I use it in Russian. So no one understands when we use obscene language that helps us deal with stress.

I broke an attraction at Disneyland in Paris. My mom tried to help me get from the wheelchair to the attraction, but it just didn’t start. It’s kind of ironic how I managed to skip the line of hundreds of people and collapse the ride when it was my turn.


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