A pandemic and one Indian family’s long wait for reunion

By Indira Laisram
Celebrating Arya's fifth birthday in Montreal in 2016

There is clearly a vacuum in young Arya Yumlembam’s life now. Staying put in the remote northeastern Indian state of Manipur with his mother Babina Rajkumari, he misses his Adelaide-based father Ashish who he last met when he was nine. He is now 11 years old.

It has become the oft-repeated pandemic story where what was once supposed to be a momentary disruption for families has now become a new way of life. The Yumlembams were last together in 2019 when they were in Canada before the coronavirus upended lives all over the world.

The family had moved to Canada in 2013 when Ashish got a job transfer from Bangalore to Montreal while working for a company called Deluxe Digital Studios as Manager. Babina was working as SAP Functional Analyst for a company called Peerless Clothing Inc there.

In October 2019, the family received their 489 Skilled Regional (Provisional) visa (Subclass 489) with occupation “Specialist Manager NEC” nominated by the South Australia government. Ashish moved to Adelaide in December 2019. With her work permit in Canada expiring in November 2019, Babina and Arya returned to their hometown Imphal where they have since been living, separated from Ashish.

April 2019. Celebrating the Manipuri New Year festival of Cheirouba in Montreal

The plan was for Arya and Babina to join Ashish once he got a job in Adelaide, but came COVID-19 and Australia closed its international borders in March 2020.

“We tried to obtain travel exemption couple of times, but we received denial reply every time from the Department of Home Affairs stating, ‘Based on the information provided, your circumstances do not meet the requirements for referral to the Commissioner or delegate. You are still subject to the travel restrictions and, should you attempt to travel to Australia, you may be refused entry while travel restrictions remain in force’,” says Babina.

In January 2021, the family made another attempt for travel exemption with the help of a migration law firm based out of Sydney, but, unfortunately, they were denied permission again. Their fifth plea for travel exemption has been met with yet another negative outcome on June 2.

In the current situation, there is little that can be done to ease the plight of the Yumlembams. Australia’s stringent approach to managing the pandemic includes border closures and imposing travel restrictions that are expected to be in place until well into 2022, according to the most recent government guidance.

The family at a wedding party in Montreal in 2019

The government states that expert health advice currently considers India a high-risk COVID-19 country. The Australian Border Force will not approve discretionary inwards travel exemptions for anyone who is currently located in India. As of now, travel to Australia is only available if you are exempt or you have been granted an individual exemption.

Incidentally, even for those Australian citizens still stranded abroad, many are finding it hard to afford flights home as prices of tickets may run into the tens of thousands of dollars for one way.

However, like the thousands of families separated by the pandemic, this is a reality far more complicated than one would imagine.

Babina says that apart from the emotional turmoil of being separated from his father and being disconnected from his friends in Canada, Arya is unable to continue his education in Manipur due to the language barrier and local language mandatory subjects.

“His primary languages are English and French only. He was in Grade 5 when he was in Canada and he is already losing an academic year. Soon, he would need to join High School and we are extremely worried that losing an academic year or more will affect his High School credentials. We even contacted a few private tutors but due to language barrier and Covid-19 condition, the idea was unsuccessful. This is also affecting his social activities.”

Arya with his dad Ashish

Ashish adds, “Arya is facing intense and strong emotions having reached the edge of puberty. The bonding and happiness which my son was looking forward to as a family with only few months separation has suddenly turned into an endless wait and the hope of seeing me in the near future makes him even more devastated.”

As a family, there is a lot to endure—and for how long is the question.

The family is fervently requesting the Australian government to reconsider their situation and grant them travel exemption.

Yet, they are trying to keep strong. Each story of separation during this pandemic reaffirms what people are capable of bearing, and eventually overcoming. While law is law, let’s hope that the Yumlembams will be able to find a way in and live together as a family again.

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