Biloela prepares to party as Murugappan family returns home | Biloela family

A few hundred people went to last year’s Flourish festival in Biloela. Kids wore traditional dress in a fashion parade down the main street. Local families served homemade food from fold-out tables.

For many, it was the sort of moment – a happy, homespun community gathering – where they most deeply felt the absence of one family. For four years, the wholesome joys of rural life have been dulled by the sense that this central Queensland town was not quite whole.

This year, organizers are trying to make last-minute arrangements to find space for international media organizations at Flourish, which will become an unofficial welcome home for Tamil asylum-seekers Priya and Nades Murugappan and their daughters Kopika and Tharnicaa.

For the group of Biloela locals involved in the remarkable campaign to bring them home, the Flourish festival will provide a catharsis. A chance to finally breathe and celebrate and contemplate the scale of what has been achieved from the generous streets of this small rural town.

“I suppose it’s probably not until you look back at how everything has rolled that you can kind of see that picture,” says Bronwyn Dendle, a social worker who has been heavily involved in the campaign.

“We’ve been down in the trenches, and haven’t had that birds-eye view. But it’s not until you sit back that you appreciate the wider implication of people being able to put a face to asylum seekers. We’ve rehumanized a group of people that past governments have worked so hard at dehumanizing.”

Home to Bilo soon: Tamil asylum seekers Nades, Priya Murugappan and their daughters Kopika and Tharnicaa. Photograph: Supplied/

“Hopefully, that will be our point in our history as a nation that we move forward as a country that is proud to be compassionate.”


The Home to Bilo campaign’s success owes everything to locals’ courageous work. The group was mostly women from Biloela, none with any campaigning or public relations experience. It began alerting media outlets that border force agents had taken the family in a 5 am raid, given 10 minutes to pack, and moved to immigration detention in Melbourne. Guardian Australia ran the first story a week later.

“We’ve just been amazed by the overwhelming support on such a large scale,” Dendle said. “We’ve got a wonderful supporter from the US who stays in touch and sends things over for the girls. We have a supporter in Germany. It’s mind-blowing, really.”

The people of Biloela never allowed themselves to stop hoping. But looking back now, there are times when a reunion in central Queensland seemed unlikely.

Bronwyn Dendle and her son, Harry, were among the Biloela residents lobbying for the family’s return. Photograph: Brian Cassey

In 2019 an attempt to deport the family was halted by a last-minute court injunction – their plane was stopped in Darwin, and they were moved to the detention center on Christmas Island.

Last year the family was moved to Perth for urgent medical attention after Tharnicaa contracted sepsis. Three family members were granted year-long visas but were forced to remain in Perth as Tharnicaa was required to stay in detention.

The decision to allow the family to return home to Biloela was one of the first acts of the incoming Labor government.

Dendle said she watched the election results with her family. Her son Harry, now nine, rang the prime minister’s office a few years ago asking his friends to be allowed to return.

“It’s been interesting explaining to him that the red team is going to bring his friend Kopika home, the blue team is not,” she said. “He’s pretty excited.”

‘They didn’t want to be noticed.’

The Flourish festival is, of course, more important than a welcome home party. The ordeal of the Murugappan family has affected the Biloela multicultural community, too.

Julie Pettet, the general manager at support organization Integrate Queensland, says many of the ethnic families of central Queensland have retreated from community life in recent years.

I believe it will give people a reason to begin that process of feeling more confident and saferJulie Pettet.

“The bigger impacts of the family being taken the way they were, so many people in the community were just head down, bum up,” Pettet says. “They didn’t want to be noticed or to come out and be mixing and mingling.

“For several community members, their first instinct [after the Murugappan family was taken] was to tell multicultural people: ‘I bet you feel lucky and grateful’.

“But they were probably feeling guilty, scared, isolated.”

Integrate Queensland helps to facilitate the Flourish festival, and Pettet said the organizing committee of locals is now expecting about 1,000 extra people, including news media from Australia and overseas.

She said the Murugappan family’s presence next weekend would significantly impact others in the multicultural community.

“I believe it will give people a reason to begin feeling more confident and safer.

“But we do not want this festival to be seen just as the party to celebrate the fact they’re home because lourisflourishr bigger than that. The community needs the opportunity to understand the benefit of having a diverse, strong, resilient migrant community.”

Unfinished business

Tharnicaa was nine months old when her family was taken from Biloela. A few days after the Flourish festival, she will turn five and celebrate her first birthday outside the detention system.

Tharnicaa Muruguppan was medically evacuated to Perth last year after being hospitalized on Christmas Island. Photograph: Supplied/

When the festivaurn to something resembling normality: birthday party when the festival endses and family trips to the local shops on Saturday. I am crafting classes at the local church.

But there are still battles to be fought. One is the resolution of the family’s permanent immigration status – they have been allowed to return home but remain on bridging visas.

“We haven’t reached the finish line on the bigger issue either,” Dendle says.

“We’ve got this little family home and are halfway there, but thousands of other Tamils in Australia need permanent protection.”

Although we know their story throughout the last four years, Australia has heard little directly from Priya and Nades. Supporters have been protective; they haven’t wanted to jeopardize their situation or antagonize government decision-makers.

Dendle says Priya now wants to use the momentum of the Home to Bilo campaign to help advocate for other Tamil families who fear persecution if returned to Sri Lanka.

“Priya hasn’t been allowed to speak up for fear of repercussions, but she has always said that what they’ve been through … is not for nothing. She wants to use this experience to be that support. She wants to keep the spotlight on the issue.

“She is the most incredible warrior woman.”

Bella E. McMahon
I am a freelance writer who started blogging in college. I am fascinated by human nature, politics, culture, technology, and pop culture. In addition to my writing, I enjoy exploring new places, trying out new things, and engaging in conversations with new people. Some of my favorite hobbies are reading, playing music, making crafts, writing, traveling, and spending time with my family.