The absence of the Nadesalingam family was deeply felt at last year’s Flourish festival – an event celebrating Biloela’s multicultural community.
But on Saturday, the hole the family left when they were taken from the town four years ago was filled as they appeared on stage at the event.
Sitting alongside a flank of supporters, Priya wears a dark purple sari and Nades white Tamil attire, and the girls, Kopika and Tharnicaa, also don a traditional dress.
Nades with his daughters Kopika and Tharnicaa. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
Priya is softly spoken but radiates strength. The strength of a mother who has watched her children grow up in detention saw her youngest child, Tharnicaa, rushed to hospital with a blood infection and fought against all odds to bring her family back to the small country town she calls home.
“I am back in Bilo,” Priya declares as she addresses the packed civic center.
“I feel fulfilled when I touch this land … I feel like I’m born again … I will dedicate my life to the Biloela community.”
Priya thanks the town for its support. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
Biloela – population 6,000 – a modest country town in the Banana shire of central Queensland hardly rates a mention on the state’s nightly bulletins.
But in the past four years, the town has become famous for the uprising of unlikely advocates – kind, country folk who have fought long and hard to bring the Nadesalingams home.
That moment finally came on Friday as the family touched down at Thangool airport to cheers and applause from their supporters. When Priya stepped out of the sliding doors and saw her friends shedding happy tears, she fell, crying and kissing the ground.
Waiting at the airport was Margot Plant, who calls herself the girls’ “grandmother”.
The plant doesn’t consider herself a political person – she says this year’s election was the first time she had ever watched the results on TV. But the injustice of the Nadesalingams’ detention – a family she insists “belongs in Biloela” – converted her into a fierce advocate.
“I’ve watched the girls grow up on FaceTime,” she says.
“The incapacity of people in the government to listen to the people of Australia has been quite a shock to me.”
When the girls arrived home, they ran straight to their new backyard and picked flowers. Living in community detention in Perth, the Nadesalingams shared a small unit with limited space for the children to play.
When you speak to family and friends, they stress the value the Nadesalingams have brought to Biloela. Before gaining work rights, Nades volunteered for St. Vincent de Paul. He later worked a job pushing trolleys at Woolworths and then at the town’s meatworks.
Priya also became a friendly, familiar face to neighbors, pushing a stroller around Biloela and making curries for staff at the nearby hospital.
Friends of the Nadesalingam family Simone Cameron and Bronwyn Dendle. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
Bronwyn Dendle, the co-founder of the Home to Bilo campaign and Labor candidate for Callide in the upcoming state byelection, was among the first people to realize the Tamil family was missing in 2018 when Priya didn’t turn up for a physiotherapy appointment at the hospital.
“I started writing letters to then immigration minister Peter Dutton, from the perspective of a social worker … should they be forced into danger in Sri Lanka,” she says. “I think I was naive at the time because I thought that was all it would take.”
The Tamil family was taken from their home in Biloela during an early morning raid in 2018 and flown almost 2,000km to an immigration detention center in Melbourne.
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After spending time in the Melbourne detention center, the Nadesalingams were later put on a flight for deportation to Sri Lanka. From inside the plane, Nades filmed the girls screaming and crying as they were separated from their mother, Priya.
The family ended up detained on Christmas Island – kept there at the cost of at least $6.7m to taxpayers – after the government attempt to deport them was halted by a last-minute injunction.
As promised before the election, the new Labor government has issued the family bridging visas so they can return to Queensland. The family hopes it will be the end of a long, painful chapter and the first step toward permanent residency.
Speaking on Saturday, the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, appeared to bolster those hopes.
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Dendle says a community fundraiser has already gathered $200,000 for the family to compensate Nades for lost wages while in detention. In the weeks leading up to their return, the community had already set up a house, as friends moved in beds and mattresses, pillows, linen, crockery, and cutlery.
“We want them to have certainty in their lives and a sense of place,” Dendle says.
Bronwyn Dendle is Labor’s candidate for the Callide by-election and cofounder of the Home to Bilo campaign. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian
Families like the Nadesalingams also changed the life of Simone Cameron, who first met the family in Biloela when she taught Nades English. Cameron completed her studies when the Nadesalingams were in detention and will soon become an immigration lawyer.
“I remember one Sri Lankan man coming to [English] class and saying, ‘I’m sorry, teacher, I’m a bit distracted today; my wife and my children are lost at sea’. And here he was, apologizing for his distractedness in class. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I think I’d want to do some work with refugees,’ … and I decided to do law,” Cameron says.
After relentless media coverage, you’d assume the family would like nothing more than to shrink away from the spotlight and return to normalcy. But Cameron says Priya, who just landed in Biloela, is already talking about the next steps for the family, as well as fighting to secure permanency for other refugees in limbo.
“They’ve changed the conversation in Australia about people seeking asylum,” Cameron says. “And so I do not doubt they’ll do some tremendous things.
“I think this family has been a real jolt to Australia’s conscience.
“Priya will be instrumental in organizing and campaigning to try and get some structural change for everybody seeking asylum in Australia.”