Writer Steven Amsterdam tried over and over for a travel exemption to leave Australia. In the end, caught up in the bureaucracy of ‘compassion’, it was too late.

By Steven Amsterdam.

Bureaucracy of ‘compassion’

Seeking permission to travel.
Seeking permission to travel.
Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

I, Steven Amsterdam, of Victoria, make the following declaration under the Statutory Declarations Act 1959:


1. I am applying for exemption to travel restrictions so that I can travel to the United States for two months. I have dual citizenship in Australia and the United States. Evidence: copies of Australia and United States passports.

You would think that having two passports would entitle you to feel entitled about travel, even in a pandemic, but no. This kind of lockdown doesn’t poll badly, so the restrictions remain in place indefinitely.


2. I am seeking permission to travel to the United States to see my elderly parents and assist them with current medical issues and plans for future care needs. Since I last visited them in January 2020 they have had multiple health issues, making this period especially challenging.

Evidence attached: copy of birth certificate, letter from my parents’ doctor, letter from R Amsterdam.

According to the Department of Home Affairs,“Compassionate and compelling reasons include, but are not limited to, needing to travel due to the death or critical illness of a close family member.” The site provides that as an example, but a Facebook group devoted to the exemption process reveals the protocol to be less clear: for example, a woman who wants to visit her new granddaughter gets an exemption; a broke couch-surfing dad who is jobless and half a world away from his family doesn’t. Because of this, the group advises that after your first rejection, check your paperwork, then try your luck and resubmit. You may reach a more compassionate desk.


3. I am a palliative care nurse and an essential healthcare worker. After working throughout multiple lockdowns here, I am seeking a limited exemption so that I may assist my elderly parents, and return to provide healthcare service to the community in Melbourne.

Evidence attached: letter from Clinical Nurse Consultant H.

Compassionate does not equal compelling, by the way. Compassionate is for less than three months, as in the case of an emergency, when you have to get there, but then need to come back to maintain employment. Compelling is for more than three months, as when you miss your family and have the ability to stay overseas that long. The bar for Compassionate exemptions is higher. So when I write that I want a limited exemption under the heading of Compassionate, I am asking for a classification that is harder to obtain.

Compassionate was always my goal, which is why, after my first application was rejected with no reason given as to why, I added the fact that I have been working as a fucking palliative care nurse here through a pandemic, leaving open the implication to whoever might be reading that they should consider the karma of keeping me from looking after my parents; one day I might be looking after theirs.


4. I understand that there are risks with this travel, including delays in returning to Australia. I have enough resources to be away from my work for this period and any additional time it may take me to return to Australia.

Evidence: copies of cash statements from Australian and United States accounts.

Money, of course. Show them your bank account to prove you won’t be stranded overseas, camping out at an Australian embassy. Also, the return tickets that are least likely to get bumped? Business-class seats, bought way in advance.


5. The prolonged separation, the circumstances of the pandemic and now the uncertainty of being able to see my parents again is causing stress and suffering, negatively impacting my mental health.

Evidence: letter from Psychotherapist J.

There are disagreements in the Facebook group about how hard to foreground the psychological distress. The people reading these stat decs see nothing but sob stories all day. Give them facts. But after my second application was rejected, I decided to gesture towards the emotional, attaching a brutally clinical note describing my anxiety, insomnia and depression. J wasn’t lying, but he did such a good job it made me wonder how untethered I have become.

For what it’s worth, after this addition, my application was approved.


6. I understand that a person who intentionally makes a false statement in a statutory declaration is guilty of an offence under section 11 of the Statutory Declarations Act 1959, and I believe that the statements in this declaration are true in every particular.

Every detail above is true, and so is the following: with the goal of streamlining the narrative and limiting myself to details I could substantiate with PDFs, I didn’t mention the extremely relevant existence of my 15-year-old son. He was 13 when I was last there. He and his mums were planning to visit Melbourne in March 2020, but plans changed. He was born in George W. Bush’s America, so, to simplify the legal hurdles for his mums, my name is not on his birth certificate.

Another key omission is the one that pushed me to start this application. In April his grandmother, Nancy, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. This was not an incidental concern for me. We first met when I was my son’s age. I went to high school with her son, was housemates with him in college, went to Seders over the years, met the family. In an amazing clan, she was The Source.

A conversation with Nancy went everywhere fast. She was a middle school principal and always curious. As soon as you were alone with her, she would say, “So?” and you were unlocked: the potential you had when you were 10 was still present and the world was only possibilities. This was two-way: she held back nothing and went instantly deep with what she was learning from life. As far as her relationship with my son: in Japanese there is a word for it, obasanko, grandmother’s boy.

And she is the reason I am his father. Sixteen years ago I was back in New York, planning to visit her son in Massachusetts. Nancy found out, and said, “We can go together. I’ll drive.” This was more than just a free ride, it was three hours of mutual interrogation. I flatter myself to think we had a special bond, because this woman had a special bond with everyone. A short walk with her anywhere meant a half-dozen pauses as she exchanged updates with locals. On that ride to Massachusetts, she happened to ask me what I thought about children. I said that I had wanted to raise one, but the more my friends and family kept producing them, the more content I was to play uncle. I didn’t know this was actually an intake interview, but I was successful. Two weeks later her daughter and partner sent me the email asking. I had many first responses, all yes, but high among them was the prospect of being related to Nancy.

The diagnosis overwhelmed her. Her infinite resources for others vanished in a day. The last time we talked she kept saying, “I have so many questions about what’s going to happen.” The questions weren’t for me, weren’t for anyone, but I wanted to see her, so I started the application for an exemption. Relying on my professional knowledge, I figured I had a little time. It was pancreatic, so there would be a few months of treatment, some stable stretches, and then, the end. In my mind, I would be getting there in July, in time to help her and everyone else with the hardest part.

I was wrong. From the time she was diagnosed she had maybe two good days in a row. There were moments, not days. Picture a tall glamorous redhead in a striped minidress in the 1960s, but here she is, blonde mixed with grey, and using a walking frame to leave another disappointing visit to the cancer hospital. More bad scans. This was last May and as she made her way past the reception desk the Derek Chauvin verdict was coming in. She slowed down to listen to it with one of the security guards. Over her repeated trips to the hospital they’d made a passing exchange of smiles and nods, enough for a connection. Picture the reception area of a cancer hospital cheering, and her cheering, too, before making her way outside with her daughter to find a cab that could take her home. She was gone in less than eight weeks.

The night before she died, she said her goodbyes. She didn’t want my son with her at the end, so I stayed up half the night with him on FaceTime. When we ran out of things to say, we watched Iron Man together.

Should I have mentioned her existence to the Department of Home Affairs? If my travel exemption had been approved on the first try, would I have made it back in time? These questions are pointless. I missed it, missed one last hug. There was nothing for me to put in my application about this woman who was a magnet until the end when she kept everyone away. And there was no place to mention my son in his suit, discovering himself able to speak at her grave, and helping out at the shiva afterwards, bagel and cream cheese in his hand, telling people, “I thought we had more time with her.” A friend who was there reported that to me. It’s the kind of detail I would have shared with Nancy and she would have loved it, but I couldn’t mention it to the Department of Home Affairs, because there are no documents to attach.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 14, 2021 as "Stat dec".

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Steven Amsterdam is a palliative care nurse and an award-winning author. His most recent novel is The Easy Way Out.

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