How one town stood up to power in the name of social justice

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Nades and Priya (back) with daughters Tharnicaa (left front) and Kopika

The Nadesalingam Tamil asylum seeker family has finally made its way home to Biloela thanks to bridging visas granted by the newly-elected Albanese Government and local campaigner Angela Fredericks has told The Point she is confident they will be able to stay in the small Queensland town for good this time.

By Jackie Pearson

Angela Fredericks expected to live in Biloela for no more than a year while her husband worked in a nearby mine but, when she found herself in the middle of a campaign to save a family of Tamil asylum seekers and their two Australian-born children from deportation to Sri Lanka, she decided she could not return to her quiet life in Brisbane.

She was stopping over in Brisbane on Friday, June 9, travelling #HometoBilo with the Nadesalingam family, when she took time out to speak with The Point.

“I went over to Perth and we flew back into Brisbane yesterday and we fly to Bilo tomorrow (Friday),” she explained. “Oh gosh, it is all still so surreal. I think the processing will hit later but we have had some really lovely moments of stopping and saying ‘we are actually flying out of Perth. We are actually in Queensland’.”

The Point asked Angela to describe how Nades, Priya and their two daughters Kopika and Tharnicaa were coping with both the announcement they would be granted bridging visas and the journey to Bileola.

“Each day it is like years are falling off them. When we hopped off the plane yesterday Priya said she felt like all the heaviness had left her. Since the election and the bridging visa we have watched her face just change.”

The family has been in the gaze of the mainstream media since March 2018 when they were taken from Biloela by Border Force, police and Serco security guards. They had been living in Biloela since 2014 and both daughters were born there. They were removed for deportation as Priya’s visa was expiring. Many across Australia watched aghast as this family was moved to detention in Melbourne, Christmas Island and Perth but, as Angela Fredericks explained, their search for safety has been far longer then the four years in the spotlight.

“Since 2013-14 they have been searching for safety because that is when they were living temporary-visa-to-temporary-visa, there was that constant threat of ‘this could be the time you were sent back’.”

The family’s supporters and human right experts are adamant it is unsafe for Nades, Priya and their children to return to Sri Lanka.

“Priya’s fiancé, before she left Sri Lanka and met Nades in Australia, was burnt alive in her village and she has severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from her experiences,” Angela Fredericks said.

“When Nades’s applications for asylum failed it was like she was going to lose another partner. She is finally beginning to actually accept that we have ‘got her’ and she is going to be able to live safely.”

“I am confident,” Ms Fredericks said of the family’s future in Australia.

“Our lawyer has been talking to Andrew Giles and I have spoken with Andrew Giles myself,” she said.

Andrew Giles is the new Federal Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs.

“The bridging visa was the fastest way to get them back to Bilo and they [the Albanese Government] are looking at the legal options but we knew that they knew that if they let them come back to Bilo – they knew we would never let them go.”

What has changed?

“The previous government would never meet with us; they would never talk to us,” Ms Fredericks said.

“Bronwyn [Dendle, who co-found the #HometoBilo campaign] and I did go down to Canberra and it was the Nationals we spoke with; we spoke with Matt Canavan [Senator], Scott Buchholz and Barnaby Joyce [former deputy Prime Minister and Nationals Leader],” she said.

“Over the years we asked Dutton, Coleman, Tudge and Hawke [the succession of Ministers responsible for asylum seekers between 2018 and the 2022 election] and they wouldn’t even talk to people who lived in their constituencies who spoke on our behalf,” she said.

According to Angela Fredericks, the attitudinal change between old and new Commonwealth Government has been palpable.

“Even prior to the last election I was talking to Senator Murray Watt, Christina Kenneally, even Andrew Giles, I spoke to him last year.

“They were prepared to listen to us and they wanted the information we had. They want to work with us and that is all we were ever asking for. We wanted to work with the government to find a solution where our community gets its needs met and these four people actually get to be safe.”

The campaign

They say it takes a village to raise a child, so what did it take for a village like Queensland’s Biloela to take on the challenge of saving a family?

Fighting for Nades, Priya and their daughters started before 2018. Bronwyn Dendle, who started #HometoBilo, was the social worker at Biloela’s hospital. Priya went through that hospital for her anti-natal care and post-birth care and she had some chronic conditions, according to Angela Fredericks. Locals were already writing letters to Peter Dutton asking for permanent visas for the family but when the Nadesalingam family were taken from Biloela overnight it didn’t take long for the old bush telegraph to do its stuff.

“Rumours started – you know what it’s like it a small town. The hospital receptionist found out at her water aerobics class, she phoned Bronwyn, Bronwyn phoned Anglicare,” Ms Fredericks said.

“The team at Anglicare had already heard and they were in grief mode. Bronwyn was, like straight away, “we can’t let this happen, what are we going to do?’

“When the family was taken their phones were taken off them. It was only a couple of days later that Bronwyn got a call from the Tamil Refugee council. We had a Tamil doctor at our hospital and they got in touch with him.

“The Tamil Refugee Council was instrumental in guiding Bronwyn and saying ‘yes you can fight this, you can take action’.”

Ms Dendle, a hospital social worker with five children of her own, needed job security.

“She came to me on a Saturday and asked if I could do it. I am a social worker in private practice that does mental health and psycho-therapy.

“I already knew Priya because we had met at the hospital when I was working there and I organized a translator for her and then in a small town, I’d see them everywhere. I knew all of Priya’s trauma history. I knew how horrific their situation was.

“Before then I was in private practice so very much living day to day doing my client work. I was at home with my husband, we were singing and dancing, in the process of thinking about starting our own family,” Angela Frederick recalled.

Then, in the space of one weekend, her life changed dramatically.

“That weekend we had a rural health conference in Bilo.

“I was meant to have a table at that conference for my business but that turned into the Priya and Nades table and that day it was suggested that I drafted the petition.

“We sent that live on the Sunday. The ABC was at the conference so we let them know it was happening and then on the Monday morning we woke up to media. I had to cancel all my clients that day. We set up in my office, Bronwyn was helping organize, and we just did it.”

Darkest moments

During her interview with The Point Angela Fredericks came across as a can-do kind of woman and she insisted she always believed Biloela would win the battle to stop the deportation of the Nadesalingam family. However, she did recall times of deep despair and fear.

“There were times when there was a feeling of powerlessness,” she said. “We learned really early on not to read comments. You’ve got to be in the right head space for that. The only moment I had to feel despair … it was in 2019 when they were doing the deportation attempt because it had been a heavy few hours,” she said, referring to the hours when Nades, Priya and their daughters were placed on a plane bound for Sri Lanka.

“We had been on the phone with them and we lost touch with Nades. We had people at the airport and they said the plane had taken off. Simone [another #HometoBilo campaigner] and I were in tears and I could hear her grownup daughter sobbing in another room. And then within an hour we had our lawyer on the phone saying we got the injunction.

“The plane was in the air so that happened during the flight and it was only the fact that the plane had to stop in Darwin to refuel and that is when they could get them off the plane.”

The memory was still so raw that Angela knew it was a Friday.

“We had been in contact that day and Saturday but then mid-Saturday night we all of a sudden couldn’t get in contact with them again because they took their phones off them. I got a phone call from Priya at 2am and she said ‘we are on Christmas Island’ and my whole body was shaking.”

Ms Fredericks visited the family twice on Christmas Island.

“I booked flights that week and went over because we were still at the point the injunction was going to court. I was over there, and I was fully prepared that the court outcome would be negative, and I would be witnessing them be deported from Christmas Island but for me I wanted it to be witnessed.

“I knew the government thought Christmas Island was out of sight and out of mind but I wanted to witness what the government did.

“Luckily we won that case so it was able to be, it sounds funny, but happy for the circumstance of being there as a friend and letting them know that we would be there no matter what.

“I went back again to Christmas Island in March with my husband,” she said.

June 9 represented exactly 12 months since Tharnicaa was flown to Perth hospital acutely and gravely ill.

“We were terrified. We were actually really scared we were going to lose her. It was horrific the state she got to before they were prepared to give her the medical care she needed. We were talking to Priya in the days leading up. She was saying she had fevers, they were only giving Panadol. Priya was asking for antibiotics but she and Nades were given a fact sheet on the common cold and fobbed off.”

Tharnicaa’s parents pleaded with detention centre staff for her to be moved to the local hospital and they refused. Priya had to phone IHMS – a health and medical service for refugees – because there was no care or staff at the detention centre overnight.

“Her phone call went to Sydney. They had a nurse on-site, but they were only there daytime hours so after hours she had to phone there. At that point Tharni was fitting and it was still hours before someone showed up and actually took them to the hospital.

“And at the hospital, and this kills me, one of the staff not knowing the circumstance, said to the parents ‘why didn’t you bring her earlier’.”

Home coming

“There will be big celebrations this weekend,” Fredericks said in advance of the family’s touch down at Thangool Airport on Friday afternoon.

“There will be a big welcoming committee at the airport and all the close supporters are going to have dinner that night. On Saturday we have our Flourish Festival in Bilo, it is a multicultural celebration, celebrating the diversity of the community and that is when they will be officially welcomed back. Priya and the Shini family [another Tamil family living in Biloela] are all going to take part in the fashion parade.”

In the last census Biloela had a population of 6000 but it is proud of its diversity which includes residents from Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

There used to be a Multicultural Development Association based in Rockhampton but its funding was withdrawn and now all asylum-seeker services are centralized in Brisbane.

However, according to Angela Fredericks, the Nadesalingam family members “honestly don’t need those services.

“We’ve got a house prepared for them, the girls next week will look at where Priuya and Nades want to enrole them in school. Nades still needs to decide what he wants to do. He was working as chef in an Indian restaurant in Perth and he really loves that so I can see him eventually becoming a chef.

Humble lessons

“The whole time, they have taught me,” say Angela Fredericks. “Even with the politicians, up to a point, they would tell me ‘we are still praying for them’. When I was over on Christmas Island the second time Priya turned to me and said, ‘Why are they doing this?’ and it was the way a child talks about a bully. Priya and Nades don’t want fuss, they don’t want harm. On my first trip to Christmas Island I was playing hair dressers with the girls and I used one of my hair ties and during the next visit Nades gave it back to me – that’s how humble they are.”

What next?

Ms Fredericks said her dealings with the Albanese Government thus far have convinced her that “they have very much said they want to quickly resolve this. Andrew Giles said you will need to enjoy this time and relax because basically they are going to resolve this in a very quick time.

“For me, what I would actually love to see happen: Tharnicaa’s asylum application has never been allowed to be assessed so I would love to have the government look at her asylum claim, realise what we know, say ‘yes, Sri Lanka is not safe’, grant her asylum and then the family would follow.

“We have a fire in our heart, fueled by the Tamil asylum seeker population spread across Australia. We want to fight to get Australia to acknowledge and change that DFAT report [which said, without publicizing any supporting evidence, that it was safe to return asylum seekers to Sri Lanka].

“The persecution of Tamils is so completely ongoing in Sri Lanka and now you’ve got the current government where even the Singhalese are rising against the state.

“I am a trauma therapist, even if that country is safe again, how could you subject someone to putting them back to the place where their trauma occurred.

“I laugh because people often say ‘so what was your strategy?’ but none of us was an activist. None of us was a campaigner. We literally saw a problem and said ‘OK what’s the solution? Let’s make it happen’. It has seriously been ‘OK what is the next thing we need to do?’ and we are still in that mindset. At the moment it is ‘let’s get them home, let’s get the house set up, the celebrations’.”

However, that fire in the bellies of the #HometoBilo campaigners is not likely to fade.

“It is very important to Priya,” said her friend Angela.” She had the support of Nades and Biloela, but there are lots of asylum seekers, families and individuals, who don’t have that support.

“Across Australia, while I have been doing this campaign I have had other people reach out to me telling me they are supporting a family in a very similar situation or they have a Tamil family in their town going through the same thing.

“I know there are people just like Priya and Nades all over Australia going through this situation. They deserve peace, they deserve certainty and security and their communities need that too.

“Now Nades, Priya and the girls are home, what about everyone else? For us, we don’t want that to be the end of the conversation. It should just be the start.”

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