On the surface, everything seemed normal.
It was a sunny, blue-sky day in early May, when Priya and Nades welcomed The Weekly to their temporary townhouse in East Cannington, Perth.
They ushered us in and served homemade snacks and sweet tea. Being a weekday, their daughters, Kopika, who was turning seven that week, and four-year-old Tharnicaa, were at a nearby primary school.
A gaggle of sulphur-crested cockatoo toys – the symbol of their much-loved former home in Biloela, Queensland – was perched on top of the TV.
Priya and Nades were polite and warm. But within minutes of starting our conversation, Nades was passing tissues to his wife as tears flowed and her voice rose with emotion, a torrent of sentences tumbling over each other in her native Tamil, an interpreter asking her to slow down and patting her hand in comfort.
As it turns out, everything was far from normal for the Nadesalingams (who are also known as the Murugappan family). And it had been that way for some time.
Nades and Priya, both 45, had come to Australia from war-torn Sri Lanka, in 2012 and 2013 respectively. They’d met and married in Sydney in 2014.
It was an arranged marriage, and although they had spoken on the phone, they’d not seen each other before their wedding day.
But as Nades says, “I always thank God because he has blessed me with Priya as my wife. Through thick and thin, and no matter what we have been through in life, we stand by each other.”
They have been through a lot.
The newlyweds moved to Biloela, a six-and-a-half hour drive north-west of Brisbane. Locals call it Bilo.
Farmland in the area produces beef cattle, mung beans, sorghum, chickpeas and wheat, but the main employment comes from a power station, a coal mine and an abattoir. Nades found work in the abattoir with roughly 500 other employees who hailed from over 20 different countries.
Priya joined the local crafting group, cooked curries for the staff at the Bilo hospital and volunteered wherever she could. And both were soon busy raising their two bright-eyed girls.
Priya would later tell her friend Angela Fredericks: “Biloela is my home. It is where my life started. It is where I got to be a wife, to fall pregnant – to be a happy person.”
But the family’s life in Australia was dependent on a series of temporary bridging visas, so it was constantly in the balance.
On March 4, 2018, after living in Biloela for four years, Priya’s visa was due to expire.
She had applied for a new one, had gone through all the correct channels and was told it was in the mail.
It didn’t arrive. Instead, at 5am on March 5, there was a loud knock at the door of the family’s cottage in Rainbow Street.
Nades opened it and was shocked to see what he estimates were 50 Australian Border Force officials, police and Serco (private security contractor) guards.
“We were told to raise our hands in the air and they forced us to sit on the sofa, as if we were criminals,” says Priya, her voice trembling and tears pricking her eyes. “Both the girls were screaming and crying because they were afraid. We were not allowed to hold them. They kept us separated from them.”
Priya was still in her nightie; Nades wore only a sarong around his waist.
They were ordered to hand over their mobile phones and the children’s birth certificates, and then given just 10 minutes to change nappies and dress.
There was no time to pack. They were not told where they were going. The officers then took them to separate vehicles – Priya and the children in one, Nades in another.
The parents’ pleas to keep the family together were ignored.
Even once they were in the car, Priya was kept in the back, tightly wedged between officers, while the children were up front, desperate to be with their mother.
“I was still breastfeeding Tharnicaa and I asked the officers if I could put her on my breast to comfort her. I was pleading with them. They refused. I said, ‘What wrong have I done to deserve this? Are you human? Do you have children?’
Priya says that a female officer told her that this was, “not something for you to ask” and that the child would eventually fall asleep.
She didn’t. Tharnicaa was hysterical for the entire one-and-a-half hour drive to Gladstone Airport.
At the airport, the family was transferred to a charter plane.
They still had no idea where they were being taken. Once on board, the parents were held between security officers and the children were once again separated from them.
“Even today, the question in my mind is, ‘Why were we treated this way?'” says Priya. “I still have no answer. Why did they need so many security people? Why did they separate us from our children? When we were on a plane, with seatbelts on and the doors locked, how were we going to get out? Why were we being treated like dangerous criminals?”
They were flown to Melbourne and put in MITA (Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation) in Broadmeadows. Priya describes their living conditions there by saying:
“It was not detention, it was jail. We were surrounded by an electric fence topped with barbed wire. There were Serco guards with us at all times. At least what happened to me in Sri Lanka happened in a war. Here in Australia there is no war. This was like a silent war.”
The outlook for the family was bleak.
They were alone, cut off from the community they loved over 1500 kilometres away, and under threat of deportation.
But then something remarkable happened. The people of Biloela started making noise. A lot of noise.
On discovering what had happened, two local social workers, Bronwyn Dendle and Angela Fredericks, sprang into action.
Despite no former experience in activism, they drummed up support from a core group of local women, drew up a change.org petition (which currently has almost 600,000 signatures), alerted the media, started crowdfunding, established the #HomeToBilo movement and publicised the plight of this one small family who Australians ultimately took into their hearts.
“Bilo is a very traditional Queensland country town,” says Angela. “It’s conservative, it votes National and there is a ridiculous number of churches here. But it’s also a really multicultural community and we have that small town thing where we stick up for each other.
“When Nades and Priya moved here, they were very much part of our community and they would be there at everything, whether it was school fetes or Christmas parties. And then they were just taken away suddenly, even though they’d done nothing wrong.
“I remember talking to another mum who took her kids to the same playgroup as Priya’s kids and she said to me, ‘Is this just a terrible mistake? Did they take the wrong people?’ Everyone loved them. And anyone who lives in our town is one of us, so we protect them.”
But things were to become even worse for the family.
Not once, but twice they were bundled onto a plane with the intention of deporting them to Sri Lanka. And both times a last-moment injunction from the family’s lawyers prevented it happening while in mid-air.
The first time was just a week after they were taken from Biloela in 2018. The plane was turned around in Perth and they were returned to Melbourne and spent almost 18 months there.
The second time, in August 2019, the plane landed in Darwin, but instead of going back to Melbourne they were then transported to Christmas Island, becoming the only inmates at the infamous detention centre.
They were held there for almost two years, at an estimated cost of $6.7 million dollars to the Australian taxpayer.
Meanwhile, the mental and physical health of the children had deteriorated. Kopika began biting herself and pulling her hair out due to anxiety.
Because of bad nutrition and a lack of vitamin D due to deprivation of sunlight, Tharnicaa’s new teeth came through rotten.
Then, in May last year, while on Christmas Island, where they lived under guard in a demountable, Tharnicaa contracted pneumonia and blood poisoning.
It took 14 days for authorities to finally acknowledge that she needed to be airlifted to Perth for treatment.
And that is how the family found themselves living in community detention in Perth, forced to abide by a list of 23 conditions and restrictions, and at the mercy of the Australian government.
To complicate matters, little Tharnicaa has never been granted a visa, meaning she does not have basic rights such as a Medicare card.
Although she only turned five this year, she is acutely aware of her uncertain status and that she is different from the rest of the family.
When The Weekly first visited Nades and Priya in May, the federal election was 10 days away and they were incredibly nervous about their future.
The then Liberal government had given no indication that it would change its hardline approach to the family.
Peter Dutton (who had been Minister for Home Affairs, Immigration and Border Protection at the time the family was snatched) had repeatedly said that they were not genuine refugees and had referred to Kopika and Tharnicaa as “anchor babies” (a slur Donald Trump popularised in his racist rhetoric about Mexican immigrants).
When asked what she would do if Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton came to her door, Priya told The Weekly: “I would welcome them into our home and be hospitable to them, and I would say to them that all we want is protection and safety for us and our children. We will work hard, we will pay our taxes and we will be part of the community in Bilo. I would plead with them for that.”
No one is disputing that Nades and Priya came to Australia seeking asylum, nor that they travelled in boats with people smugglers.
They had compelling reasons to do that. They were desperate. They were escaping the dire situation that faced Tamils following the civil war in Sri Lanka, which had raged for 26 years, resulting in war crimes and the deaths of more than 50,000 military personnel and 100,000 civilians.
Nades, like many young Tamil men, had been forced to join the resistance movement popularly known as the Tamil Tigers.
When the movement was defeated in 2009, former members’ lives were in grave peril.
Priya’s past is also haunted by trauma. She speaks of abuse and atrocities committed against her family, and she witnessed the death of her fiancé and other men in her village – tyres were forced over their heads and they were burned alive.
Despite the former Australian Government’s claims that it was safe for Tamils to return to the country, many human rights groups disagree.
And as the family’s story has been international news for over four years now, they would be an obvious target. Nades and Priya believe they would be arrested, tortured, or even killed, while the girls would be sent to orphanages.
But their supporters were determined it wouldn’t come to that.
Biloela wanted them back, a growing number of Australians and a wide array of prominent politicians and commentators also wanted them to go back.
The debate about the family’s future accelerated in the lead-up to the election.
Former NSW Premier and Federal Senator, Kristina Keneally, was a vocal supporter.
There was public support from a group of Liberal backbenchers and notable conservatives such as Queensland MP Bob Katter, shock jock Alan Jones and former Nationals leader and deputy PM Barnaby Joyce.
“The Minister for Immigration can, with the stroke of a pen, grant visas that allow the family to go back to Biloela and stay in Australia,” Kristina Keneally said in May. “And if the Morrison government won’t do it, an Albanese government will.”
Anthony Albanese confirmed this publicly. So, a lot was hanging on the 2022 Federal Election.
The day before polling booths opened, Angela Fredericks was on tenterhooks.
“We are absolutely terrified,” she said. “Priya hasn’t slept for days. She’s so strong but I can see the mental toll this is having on her. She’s been praying daily about the outcome of this election. No matter what happens tomorrow, until their feet are back on the ground here in Bilo, we won’t stop. They’re not just our friends. Now they’re our family.”
As soon as the election result was confirmed on that Saturday night, Angela put in a Zoom call from Biloela to Priya in Perth.
Nades, who works as a cook six days a week, was at work.
“You’re coming home to Bilo!” Angela exclaimed.
Priya burst into tears and the two girls started comforting her and handing her tissues. They had seen their mother cry so often that they assumed this was more bad news. Angela had to explain to them that we don’t just cry when we are sad – that these were tears of joy.
When Nades returned home later that evening, he and Priya fell into each other’s arms. As they hugged, they repeated one word over and over. That word was “happy”.
Five days later, when The Weekly visited again, the relief on the couple’s faces was palpable.
“This is such happy news,” said Nades, who was meticulously ironing Priya’s sari for her to wear in our photo shoot.
“For four years, sadness was the definition of our lives. Our tears have now dried up. There will be no more crying in the future.”
As for Priya, despite everything she has been through, her attention is already turning to others.
“My prayer is that this government will make a change to the lives of every single refugee who comes here,” she said. “All refugees are survivors. They need hope. I had the support of Nades and we had the support of the people of Bilo. But many others don’t have that support. So I want to help.”
Every evening, for four long years, when Angela Fredericks called the family, she would say goodnight to Kopika and Tharnicaa, and they would tell her to dream about them being back in Bilo.
At last, that dream will now come true.
As we went to press, Angela was preparing to fly to Perth to accompany Priya, Nades and the girls on their journey home, and they were back in Bilo in time to celebrate the town’s multicultural festival and Tharnicaa’s fifth birthday in the second week of June.
As for Angela, her involvement in trying to save the family has changed her life in fundamental ways, too.
“Most of all,” she says, “I’ve learned the importance of people power. In the beginning, a lot of people told us that there was nothing we could do about this, so why bother trying? But there’s so much you can achieve if you all stand together.”
You can read this story and many others in the July issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now