#hometobilo campaigner says God placed Tamil asylum seekers in her life for a reason

Marie Austin does not consider herself an activist. In fact, she says she’s about as far from activism as you could get.

Marie lives in Biloela, a rural town in the Shire of Banana in Central Queensland. She tells me she’s never been involved in political campaigning, never even considered it a possibility. But in May 2018, she travelled over 1200kms to ask a question on ABC’s political panel show Q&A about her friends Priya, Nades and their two daughters.

Stories about people seeking asylum and refugees

“On the 5th March at dawn, Mr Dutton’s border force removed our friends Priya and Nades and their two Australian-born daughters from their home. They have been since held at a Melbourne detention centre …” said Marie to the panel and a national television audience.

“Our town loved this little family and we want them. We want them to come home. I personally have travelled – along with other people from Biloela – the 1800kms to Melbourne to visit and support this family in whatever way we can. The question has been asked of Mr Dutton to exercise his discretionary powers to allow these people to stay and a petition with 100,000 signatures has also been presented, calling for their return to Biloela. Our question tonight is: what more could we do to ensure Priya, Nades, Kopika and Tharunicaa return home to Biloela.”

The #hometobilo campaign began with a group of Biloela residents who came together to do whatever they could to help Nades, Priya and their girls stay in Australia.

“We’re just community members who know this family and see the injustice of their situation,” Marie tells Eternity.

Tamil asylum seeker Priya (left) with Biloela resident Marie Austin. Marie Austin

Priya and Nadesalingam (also known as Nades) are asylum seekers who left Sri Lanka during the civil war and arrived separately in Australia by boat in 2012 and 2013. They were put on temporary bridging visas while their applications to stay in Australia as refugees was assessed. Priya and Nades were married in 2014 and they settled in rural Biloela, where Nades worked at the local abattoir. They found a community who welcomed them and made a life for themselves, including welcoming the birth of their two daughters Kopika (4) and Tharunicaa (2).

Four years after they arrived in Biloela, Australian Border Force officials accompanied by police arrived at the family’s home at 5am on a usual Monday morning, told that their visas had expired and that they would be deported. That was 18 months ago, in March. Since then, the family have been held in a detention centre in Melbourne. Various humanitarian groups and the Biloela community have fought to keep the family in Australia and for them to be allowed to go home to Biloela. But they have been consistently been found not to meet Australia’s protection obligations and denied refugee status. A judge in the Federal Circuit Court last year found that there was no evidence to suggest that Nades family, who are still living in Sri Lanka, were at risk from authorities.

But the family maintain that they fear persecution on their return to Sri Lanka because of past links to the militant political group, the Tamil Tigers.

The Tamil Refugee Council told The Guardian that Tamils are still being “disappeared” in northern Sri Lanka, where the ethnic minority continues to suffer persecution under military occupation.

In May this year, the High Court dismissed an application for their case to be reviewed.

“I think perhaps, in a small way, meeting them has taught me the need to speak up for people who can’t speak for themselves.”

A spokesperson from the Australian Border Force said in a statement that the “family’s case has been assessed, over many years, by the department, various tribunals and courts, including the High Court of Australia.”

“Non-citizens who do not hold a valid visa and who have exhausted all outstanding avenues to remain in Australia are expected to depart to their country of citizenship.”

Just this week, Priya, Nades and their daughters were granted an interim injunction to prevent their transportation back to Sri Lanka, in a last-ditch effort that saw them taken off a plane and held in a hotel. Repeated calls for Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton to use his ministerial discretion to intervene in the case have been rejected by Dutton.

Marie (second from right) visited Priya, Nades and their family with other members of the Biloela community on several occasions while the family was held in detention in Melbourne.

Marie told Eternity that many people in Biloela’s Christian community have joined the fight to have Priya and Nades return home, and have done everything they can think of to raise awareness of their friends’ situation.

Marie first heard about the Tamil family who’d come to live in Biloela through work. She was made aware of a medical need of Nades, and felt immediately drawn to help if she could.

That Sunday, at her local Baptist church, Marie heard a sermon on the the Good Samaritan.

“I just felt like I needed to follow through on this feeling that I could help this family in some way.”

She and her husband met with Priya and Nades and formed a friendship. Marie says they didn’t see each other frequently, but Priya would “always make a point of coming over to say hello and give me a hug when I saw them down town.”

“I struggle that our Prime Minister believes in the same God as I do, but we see this so differently.”

Marie recalls that even at her first introduction to them, the threat of being sent home seemed to “hover” over them.

“I just felt a real heart for this family and where they’d come from and what they’ve gone through,” she says. “They’re just such beautiful people.”

Marie says she’s still trying to work out why God placed Priya and Nades in her life.

“I think perhaps, in a small way, meeting them has taught me the need to speak up for people who can’t speak for themselves.”

“I don’t like attention – I don’t like public speaking. I have been shoved out of my comfort zone, knowing that if I didn’t say something then it might not be heard at all. Going on Q&A to ask my question was one of those times.

“I didn’t even know what Q&A was! I’d never watched it. But I was asked by a few people in Biloela to consider going and making our case for Priya and Nades.”

The public response Marie got to her question asking what more the community of Biloela could do to bring Priya and Nades home was “really positive”, says Marie.

Marie has travelled to Melbourne twice to visit Priya and Nades and their girls in detention. She says a great frustration in the community at Biloela is that it’s been 18 months since the couple were taken from their community – where they were living independently and “paying their own way”.

“They could have been allowed to stay in the community, to keep working and living here. But instead they’re in a detention centre. Stuck there.”

On Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison backed Peter Dutton’s decision, saying allowing Priya and Nades and their daughters to stay in Australia would soften the government’s hardline boats policy and would be exploited by people smugglers.

“I do understand the real feeling about this and the desire for there to be an exception but I know what the consequences are of allowing those exceptions,” he told media in a press conference.

Marie says she’s obviously disappointed at Scott Morrison’s stance.

“I struggle that our Prime Minister believes in the same God as I do, but we see this so differently.”

“[In the Bible] we’re encouraged to love and look after our foreigners and refugees, as much as we are our widows and the poor. We are told to do this,” she says.

Biloela residents held another vigil for their friends in town over the weekend, joining with thousands across the country to protest the imminent deportation. Marie read a poem she had written about her friendship with Priya and Nades:

“You all know the story – it didn’t take long for word to get around
Of very special friends of mine taken from our home town.

Little Biloela, we were making headlines in the news
As this precious Tamil family, their freedom they did lose.

An early morning raid, and from their home they were torn
Priya and Nades, and their little girls, who are Australian born.

Hard working, warm and friendly, anyone could tell
This community minded family had integrated well.

They weren’t here in hiding, and they didn’t break the law…
So why after all these years, did you say they can stay no more?

They worked, they participated, they contributed in every way
And there are a lot of people, who want you to let them stay!

Yes, we hear the chants of people whose minds are filled with fear
“They’re forming gangs, they’re terrorists and we don’t want them here!”

“They take all the things that we want and that we’re entitled to…
Like our jobs and our welfare payments, just to name a few”

To those of you who feel this way, this simply isn’t true
You couldn’t begin to imagine just what they have been through.

I respect that we need policies to keep our borders safe, secure…
And I know not all who come here come with good intent for sure.

But you gave me the right to an opinion, when you asked me to make refugees feel
At home here in Australia, make them welcome, help them heal

From the traumas they experienced in the countries that they’ve fled;
Let’s give them a taste of a life here, and then steal it from them instead.

You allowed Priya and Nades to live in Biloela for many a year
You allowed me to get to know them, and build a friendship very dear.

These people aren’t just numbers; they didn’t come to cause us strife.
They are a mum, a dad, a daughter; they are a husband and a wife,

They are a co-worker; they are a neighbour, they’re a friend
And it’s time that their detainment is brought to an end.

The way that they’ve been treated it leaves my heart to break
Just how much of this added trauma, can one poor family take?

Now over time, the days have passed – eighteen months is far too long!
It seems the large majority can see that this is wrong.

We’ve signed petitions and we’ve rallied, we make a constant plea
Because there are those in power who can put an end to this you see…

We Ask for ministerial intervention as an act, ‘generous and humane’,
In the ‘interest of the public’, grant our friends a visa and let them home again.

As many of us make our plans of what to do each week
Two precious little Aussies, are locked up, as we speak.

One is just a four year old, the other, only two…
And they are being punished for something they didn’t do.

As other little children go to school to learn and bloom
Four year old Kopika, remains locked up in a room.

Today,’s a special time to celebrate our dads Australia wide
But for one gentle, humble father, Nades, a few tears I have cried,

As you stripped away his freedom and took with it his dignity too
A message for our leaders: this is NOT a Christian thing to do.

Please Mr Minister, you know their future won’t be bright,
But you can turn this situation round and make this wrong a right.

Just like the cockatoo, we ask you, let them spread their wings and fly
Back home to Biloela, we want them here, that’s why!