Stranded children: Two families’ heart wrenching stories

By Indira Laisram
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Every morning, Evangeline Doney, who is only four years old, arranges her clothes in a bag, dresses up and asks her grandparents to take her to the airport. Evangeline also does not let her grandfather out of her sight thinking he may go away leaving her behind.

The hapless grandparents living in Alleppey in the southern Indian state of Kerala are often at their wits’ end to calm a child separated from her parents in Australia by an exceptionality brought on by a virus limiting nations and borders to open up.

Evangeline’s mother Ciciliamma Joseph, who works as a full-time registered nurse in Goslingcreek Aged Care, Orange, New South Wales (NSW), says she is unable to video call. “Whenever she sees our faces, she would start crying and that would eventually lead to a fever.”

A paediatrician has also given a certificate stating that the child is suffering from separation anxiety. “My daughter is really going through a stage of depression even though she is very young. She is not eating much, not sleeping, and is not happy,” says a distraught Ciciliamma.

It was in February 2020 that the Josephs travelled to Kerala little aware that COVID-19 would upend lives.

“Last year, my mother came here on a one-year tourist visa. Around February, we all went back together to India. At that time, both my parents got the visa to come back to Australia. So, while me and my husband Doney Jose came back in March, my parents were coming a month later in April with Evangeline. But Australia closed its international borders the day after we landed,” says Ciciliamma.

Evangeline with her parents

It is almost 16 months that the Josephs have not seen their daughter. Application for travel exemptions for the grandmother to drop off their minor daughter to Australia has resulted in refusal two times. More on that later.

Elsewhere in Punjab, two-year old *Gurmeet clings on to his grandmother. He runs around and she is unable to keep up with his speed now given her joint pains that causes her some discomfort at times.

Canberra-based Mrs Kaur (who does not want her whole name revealed) says although she speaks to him regularly, there are times when she does not feel like talking as she is overcome with emotion. She does not want to show her vulnerable side to both her son and her mother-in-law.

Gurmeet was born in March 2019 in Canberra Hospital. Ever since he was born, there was always someone from the family in India to help Kaur and her husband, both temporary residents here in Australia. “After my delivery, my mother-in-law came and was here for five months. She went back to India in July 2019. Because I was still a student and had to work as well, I applied for my parents to come and they came here in August 2019 and stayed till mid-November.”

After they left, Kaur and her husband decided to put Gurmeet in day care as both had to work and study.

Gurmeet with his parents

But day care proved to be the ultimate nightmare for young Gurmeet. “We had to leave him on Saturdays but as most professional day cares were closed on Saturdays, we found a registered home care centre. He went there for three four times but my son, who is otherwise a very happy child, cried so much and just could not adjust to the place. He started feeling scared, of, say, even car seats. And normally when a child wakes up, he sees your face and is happy but he turned silent and even stopped enjoying his baths,” says Kaur.

It was then that Kaur and her husband decided to stop his day care enrolment. They  applied for her mother-in-law’s visa again which was granted in December 2019. Unfortunately, due to some family problems in Punjab she couldn’t come.

Gurmeet was 10 months old by then. Kaur and her husband flew to India that December with the dual purpose of solving the family issue and bringing their mother along with them. “But since the issue could not be solved on time, my mother-in-law suggested that we leave Gurmeet behind. I was a mother and I wasn’t happy. How can a mother, after all, part from her child? But looking at how happy he was in India as opposed to being in day care in Canberra, I agreed to the suggestion. Also, it was only a matter of few months, my mother-in-law was due to come by April 2020 as she had the visa,” says Kaur.

Kaur and her husband came back to Australia on January 21, 2020. But in March Australia closed its international borders.

“My son couldn’t come back. He is two years now,” says Kaur.

Twice Kaur has filed for exemption for her mother-in-law to travel to Australia with her son but her applications have been rejected. “There was no reason given,” she rues.

Meanwhile, Neha Sandhu, who herself was once stranded in India, says as a mother, she can feel the pains of separation.

Neha formed a Facebook and WhatsApp group on stranded Indians and has since helped about 15 children reunite with their families in Australia.

Neha Sandhu

“It started with a message on Facebook messenger from someone called Karishma whose daughter was in India and she wanted her back. I knew from my past experience that there is a parents’ consent form that has to be filled up. There was also a lady who had brought her daughter with the help of a friend and I told Karishma the option, she said she had no friends and also didn’t want to separate her parents. Travel exemption rule says only one parent has to be nominated for dropping the child. So through video calls and contacts with other groups, everything was settled. It started from there.”

After that many parents started contacting Neha. “My job was to ask the person to do some of the initial enquiries, then pass the details to the parents and the parents then passed the details to the extended family members in India. They also verify from their end if they are comfortable and it involves few phone calls and video calls with the child sometimes, it worked altogether.”

Now, Neha says she is more involved with minors stuck in India and helping them with all the necessary information. “I always guide them to email the Australian High Commission and DFAT so that they can get a case officer, which makes things easier for them.”

However in the case of Evangeline and Gurmeet, Neha, who has been of immense help to both, says it is perhaps their temporary resident status that has proved to be an impediment.

In her experience, the most disappointed lot are parents who are students or temporary residents. “There are some parents who are trying for exemption for their child and they are not getting as priority is given to citizens and permanent residents,” says Neha, adding, “Some children are simply too young to fly without their family members.”

The DFAT website clearly states that temporary visa holders in Australia can depart Australia at any time. However, they will generally not be permitted to return.

Evangeline Joseph with her grandparents in India

In a reply to an email, an Australian Border Force spokesperson said, “Dependent children of Australian citizens and permanent residents, who are located overseas are automatically exempt as ‘immediate family members’ from Australia’s inwards travel restrictions.”

“Travellers who are not in an automatically exempt category and have a compassionate or compelling reason to travel to Australia need to have an exemption from the Australian Border Force Commissioner.

“Temporary visa holders currently outside Australia will need to request an exemption to travel to Australia. Those without a valid visa will not generally be considered for a travel exemption,” the spokesman said.

According to reports, as of June 2021, there were more than 200 Australian children stuck in India without their parents.

Kaur has been told officially that unfortunately she has to go back to India to reunite with her son but there is no guarantee that she can come back. All she wanted was a travel exemption for her mother-in-law to bring back her son.

Kaur and her husband are in a situation where they cannot afford to leave Australia right now. Having received the invitation from the ACT government for 491 visa (a Provisional Visa that enables eligible professionals and their family members to live, study and work in the designated regional areas of Australia for five years), they have applied for nomination, which means they have to work and live in the designated area for a certain period of time.

Similarly, Ciciliamma Joseph says that even if her husband is given an exemption to travel to India, due to his temporary visa, there is uncertainty about his return to Australia. “We are on 489, we are eligible to submit our PR application around October of this year,” says Ciciliamma, a full-time nurse and whose husband is a disability support worker.

However in their case, there seems to be some sliver of hope. Just when they were about to submit their third travel exemption application for Evangeline’s grandmother, they got a call from Home Affairs department. “They have asked me for more documents and will reopen my case. I don’t know what miracle happened but I got this news,” says Ciciliamma.

Evangeline

At the time of writing the story, this was the latest development.

Earlier, the immigration department had told the Josephs that they were happy to give the visa to the child’s grandmother provided she got the travel exemption.

The Josephs have gone through a lot. On June 13, Ciciliamma had her second baby after a lot of complications during her pregnancy including a postpartum hemorrhage. Doctors had put her under a high-risk category and three doctors had given her certificates for her mother’s application to be approved so that she had her support her during the pregnancy.

“Unfortunately, people didn’t consider anything. I didn’t want both my parents to come but at least one,” says Ciciliamma, who continues to visit the hospital every week and suffers from migraine thinking about her daughter.

“I am respecting the Australian government’s initiatives to protect its people in Australia from such a pandemic. But I don’t know why the government is not understanding the stress and struggle borne by parents like us,” rues Ciciliamma.

New immigrants such as Ciciliamma and Kaur are definitely feeling their trust in the government eroding.

“How the Australian government is simply ignoring the pain of these kids since Australia is always highlighting the value of family life? For the past 15 months, the government is having no clear answer about pandemic management or about border opening. And where is the importance of basic human rights?” asks Ciciliamma, adding, “My doctors keep asking me to avoid stress but as a mother how it is possible? We are here because we have the visa, we met all the requirements asked by the honourable government, we are following all the rules and paying all the taxes. Then why is the government not seeing our pain?”

In the same vein, Kaur asks, “We work, we pay taxes so why a different set of rules for temporary residents. In fact, we are not getting that many facilities as Australian citizens, but we are earning and can survive, so at least help us in our times of trouble. We are not asking for changing the country’s name, we just want our child back, that’s all. It’s a fair demand. The pain of separation does not vary acccording to visa categories.”

Neha believes there is a positive change with travel exemption happening on both sides, although reality can be a bit difficult too. “In some cases, the temporary resident parents are in Australia, and the child who is in India has a visa that is expired. So, they have to go through the double trouble of applying for visitor visa and travel exemption for the child.”

No one really knows for sure when life will be normal, but for these children stranded in India without their parents—it appears to be a long road home!

*Name changed


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