Life

For the Nadesalingam family, trapped in community detention in Perth, the election result has provided hope that they can return to their rural Queensland home. By Rebekah Holt.

Going home to Biloela

Kopika and Tharnicaa watch the federal election results come in.
Kopika and Tharnicaa watch the federal election results come in.
Credit: Francis Brough

On the night of the election that will determine their fate, the members of the Nadesalingam family, also known as the Murugappans, are apart. They want badly to be together, but father and husband Nades has to go to work. He works six days a week as a cook, and staff shortages have obliged his attendance.

Nades won’t get home to his wife until 9pm WST, nearly an hour after the election is finally called.

The Nadesalingam family live in community detention in Perth’s suburbs. There’s Nades, Priya and their young daughters, Kopika and Tharnicaa. They’ve lived here since last year, when they were transferred from detention on Christmas Island. Their home is a simple two-bedroom unit on the ground floor of a bland complex of townhouses. It is small and sparsely furnished, a scattering of the girls’ toys and crayons on the floor. In their tiny courtyard, makeshift pots are filled with plant cuttings, while on the wall of the family room is a shelf holding dozens of stuffed cockatoos – a symbol of support from Australians. This was a warm touch, but otherwise the place – unsurprisingly for a family caught in limbo – has an impermanent and improvised feel.

On election night, I join Priya, her two young daughters, and a family friend named Verna – a local woman who has helped translate for them – at the family’s home. As Nades is at work, I sit with Priya and Verna, anxiously watching the election results on television. Kopika and Tharnicaa play in another room, the youngest perhaps not fully aware of how profoundly significant the result will be for her family.

But Priya certainly is, and she’s been sick with nerves all day. “I am very tension, my face is burning, red colour,” she tells me when I arrive at 6 o’clock that evening. “Today all day is very tension and nervous but I am very strong.”

 

For terrible reasons, the Nadesalingam family has become famous. Nades and Priya were Tamil asylum seekers, who arrived in Australia separately by sea. They married here, then had their two daughters. Until 2018, they lived in Biloela, regional Queensland, on bridging visas. Then, before sunrise one morning in March 2018, police and Australian Border Force agents whisked the family away to an airport, where they were flown 1500 kilometres to a detention centre in Melbourne.

The Australian government didn’t accept their claims to refugee status and, while the family’s supporters helped organise lawyers and file claims, attempted to deport the family to Sri Lanka before a court injunction prevented it in 2019. The family was then transferred to a detention centre on Christmas Island. Since then, the family has enjoyed vocal support from the Biloela community.

In June last year, the youngest daughter, Tharnicaa, then just three years old, became gravely ill with a blood infection and pneumonia. With her mother, she was flown to Perth Children’s Hospital. The government cruelly prevented her father and sister from attending the hospital, but after a week of sustained public criticism, this prohibition was relented and Tharnicaa was joined by the rest of her family.

After Tharnicaa’s release from hospital, with other legal matters under way, the family were transferred to community detention and barred from leaving the state. Their hope – which the Labor Party said they would uphold if elected to government – was to be granted permanency, and to be returned to their beloved Biloela.

And so now, finally, it’s election night – and not for the first time are husband and wife separated.

 

We’re in the kitchen with Priya as she prepares dinner. Priya says cooking helps calm her nerves. From the small television in the family room, we can hear the ABC’s election coverage. From another room, we can hear the girls playing.

“Girls understand watching the TV,” Priya says. “Girls understand the green and blue and red. Kopika understand red colour is a win, I go back to Biloela.”

At 7pm, the girls join their mother, Verna and me in the kitchen for dinner. Priya doesn’t eat, but watches closely to make sure the rest of us do. After dinner, the girls return to their room to play, while we take a seat on the couches before the television.

There is something else sitting heavily with Priya that night. Earlier in the day, the Morrison government had broken its own pledge of never commenting about “on-water matters” by declaring that two boats from Sri Lanka had been intercepted that day. In select marginal seats, voters began receiving text messages declaring the same thing.

This news was impossible for Priya to ignore. “Very nervous,” Priya says about it. “Early I was very upset after watching the TV.”

It is after 9pm on the east coast and Priya’s nervousness starts to ease a little. Labor’s numbers look good. I ask if Nades can be contacted at work, but Priya says no. She thinks he will be too busy to answer his phone.

Every time her phone rings, which it does many times throughout the evening, I reflexively whisper “Nades?” and she shakes her head.

At 7.38pm Perth time, Nic Holas from change.org calls me from Biloela, where he is with the community organisers of the “Home To Bilo” campaign. He says the indications that the Labor Party will be able to form government are now clear enough that it seems safe to tell Priya and the girls. He asks me to help Priya open a Zoom link he will send through.

I tell Priya it looks good.

Priya rushes to change the girls into red dresses she has put aside for them. In the lounge we can hear the girls laughing while their mother washes their faces and changes their clothes. Verna is looking at her phone. “The Daily Mail have called it,” she says.

Priya comes back in and sits on the couch with the girls and I help her open the link so that she can join the call to her friends and campaign team in Biloela. They’re crowded around a laptop. “It looks like we have won, you going to come home.”

Priya sits back and covers her face with both hands and starts silently crying. She thanks her community support team, some 3500 kilometres away, while Tharnicaa gently touches her mother’s face to comfort her. Kopika hands her mother some tissues. “At 6.30am I very upset, I got up and went to prayer room,” Priya tells her friends. “I crying, I praying, everything. But four years, it’s a hard life”.

Kopika leans over to me and whispers: “Why is Mum crying?”

“Because she is happy, you get to go home,” I say.

After the call finishes, the girls go to bed, curl up together, and quickly fall asleep while the sounds of the election coverage are still audible through their open door.

About 9pm, shortly after Scott Morrison begins his concession speech, Nades comes home. He embraces his wife and she weeps again. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him look so unburdened. He seems lighter. It has been more than four years since the family was last in Biloela.

Election day in Perth had been sunny and 25 degrees, and the air is still warm as I say goodnight and get in my car. Slowly pulling down the narrow driveway, the outline of Priya and Nades waving is backlit by the open door of the community detention unit that they will soon leave. In the driveway, a branch from a thyme plant juts out, bending under the side mirror, then snapping back towards my open window, the smell of it filling the car.

On Friday afternoon, the acting Home Affairs minister, Jim Chalmers, announced that the Nadesalingam family can return to Biloela.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2022 as "Going home".

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Rebekah Holt is a Melbourne-based journalist who covers immigration and politics for the Australian and New Zealand media.

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