The Nadesalingam family has finally touched down in Biloela, more than four years after they were taken from their home by the Australian Border Force.
As the family walked out of Thangool airport on Friday, Priya dropped to her knees and kissed the ground.
“I am so happy,” she said. “I am starting a new life.”
Supporters sobbed as they hugged the family and handed Tharnicaa and Kopika two toy cockatoos.
The Tamil family have become perhaps the most famous example of Australia’s harsh treatment of asylum seekers.
Given 10 minutes to pack before being removed from their home by border force agents in a 5am raid in March 2018, they were moved to immigration detention in Melbourne.
In 2019, an attempt to deport the family to Sri Lanka 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 where they spent two years.
Last year the family was moved to Perth after Tharnicaa contracted sepsis and required urgent medical attention. Three members of the family were granted year-long visas, but were forced to remain in Perth as Tharnicaa was required to remain in detention.
In May, the interim home affairs minister, Jim Chalmers, granted the family bridging visas, allowing them to leave community detention in Perth and return to their home in Biloela, but still not guaranteeing their status on Australian shores.
Nearly 600,000 people signed Home to Bilo campaigner Angela Fredericks’ Change.org petition in support of the family, and more than 53,000 phone calls and emails were made to Australian politicians from the family’s supporters across the country.
Bronwyn Dendle, a friend of the family and co-founder of the Home to Bilo campaign, said the family’s return showed that “love conquered all” and that you should “never underestimate the power of the people”.
Fredericks, who traveled with the family, said it was the first time in the past four years that the girls had been calm and content on a flight.
“They had heard screaming and shouting, they were separated, extremely traumatic journeys,” she said.
“This was the first flight, as Priya said, they got to walk through the front of the airport, they got to all sit together, they got fed and they got coloring books, and they were actually able to be a family.”
Fredericks thanked the small town of Biloela who she said had “opened up” their “arms for the family”.
“Australians have shown that we care… Australians have shown that we can unite and we can ignore the narrative of fear and division and we can come together as one,” she said.
Priya and Nades Nadesalingam fled Sri Lanka by boat over a decade ago, and met after arriving in Australia.
Priya said detention had been “mentally stressful” for the girls and their “health” was “no good”.
While the family has not yet been granted permanent protection, the immigration minister, Andrew Giles, told Guardian Australia he’s receiving advice to ensure the family has “every opportunity to rebuild their lives in Biloela with a sense of certainty”.
The newly minted government has said it will abolish temporary protection visas, paving the way for 19,000 others to be granted permanent protection.
Barathan Vidhyapathy, an organizer from the Tamil Refugee Council, said the family has been through “unimaginable cruelty”.
“There are many Tamil people in similar situations,” he said on Friday. “They live in fear of being in deportation. We know that Sri Lanka is not safe for Tamils.”
On Saturday, the family will attend Biloela’s multicultural Flourish festival – which is expected to attract 1,000 extra attendees to welcome the family home – before celebrating Tharnicaa’s fifth birthday on Sunday.
“Landing here has given me a lot of hope for my girls… with safe and happy lives,” Priya said. “Words can’t describe how I feel today.
“I am asking the government, please let us live us here permanently… let our girls have hope in their future.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism