Harpinder Kaur Romana hasn’t seen her three-year-old daughter for more than a year.
The healthcare worker from the Melbourne suburb of Truganina weeps as she explains her daughter, Ashlyn, left for a six-week holiday in India with her grandparents in January last year.
Harpinder Kaur Romana with her youngest daughter Arzoyi. The family has been separated from her oldest daughter Ashlyn for more than a year.Credit:Jason South
Three days before Ashlyn and her grandparents were due to fly home on March 25 last year, India imposed a ban on international aircraft landing in the country for a week to contain the spread of COVID-19.
In the same month, Australia closed its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents. Ms Romana said her parents, who are not Australian citizens, could not bring Ashlyn home.
“We thought that she can go there and then she can come back, but it all changed,” says Ms Romana, an Australian citizen who has lived in Melbourne for 12 years.
Ashlyn is one of 9000 Australians trying desperately to get home as Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday announced direct passenger flights between Australia and India would be suspended until May 15 due to India’s worsening COVID-19 outbreak. Of the 9000, 650 are classed as vulnerable.
“For a year I called airlines to bring my daughter home but they wouldn’t because she was an unaccompanied minor,” Ms Romana said.
Ms Romana finally found an Australian friend to accompany Ashlyn home and she was booked on a chartered flight on May 7. Her daughter had packed her bags and was counting down the days until she would meet her baby sister.
Now the family has once again been thrown into turmoil, unsure if Ashlyn’s flight will be affected.
“When we are calling the agents, we are not getting answers. This is life-shattering for me, honestly,” Ms Romana says.
“It’s so hard, believe me, being the mother away from a child for such a long time. I don’t have words to explain to you honestly. These are her development years and she’s thinking that she’s being neglected because we have another baby. She doesn’t know the situation, what’s going on. She just knows that she’s away from her parents.”
In January Anitha Parthasarathy, a software developer from Croydon North, and her nine-year-old daughter Chaitra were granted an exemption to fly to Bangalore in southern India after her father died.
“My wife is the only child they have,” says Ms Parthasarathy’s husband, Madhujith Venkatakrishna. “Her mother was extremely sick as well – she’s had a heart problem. If my wife weren’t there, definitely nobody would take care of her. It was a desperate, desperate situation. She did not go there for a holiday or to have fun.”
Ms Parthasarathy and her daughter are booked on a repatriation flight home on May 22, but her husband says the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has warned it may not go ahead.
Madhujith Venkatakrishna’s wife and daughter are stranded in India after visiting in January when his father-in-law died.Credit:Justin McManus
“I feel very helpless to be honest,” Mr Venkatakrishna says.
He says he and his family swore allegiance to Australia when they became citizens and relinquished their Indian citizenship.
“We are not asking the government to pay us anything, fund anything, support, discount, nothing. We are ready to pay everything in full. All we’re asking them is to just allow people to come back in. I almost feel discriminated against, to be honest.”
Mr Venkatakrishna says hospitals and crematoriums in Bangalore are overrun and the city is in lockdown, with residents allowed to leave their homes only to shop for necessities between 6am and 10am. Public transport has shut down and police patrol the streets.
“Right now the case numbers are scary. To say that I’m not worried would be lying.”
Ritika Shah was forced to part with her howling three-year-old daughter Kiyara, with whom she had never been separated, at Melbourne Airport in March.
Ritika Shah with her daughters Sara and Kiyara and her husband Sid.
Her father, who lived in Mumbai, was critically ill and she had applied for an exemption to travel to India to support her mother.
“He passed away when I reached India,” Ms Shah says. “Now after settling my mum here and getting her fully vaccinated I am looking at my return, but my heart is sinking hearing about the ban.”
Ms Shah believes the suspension of flights was inevitable after the political and media furore following revelations the snap three-day lockdown in Western Australia had been sparked by someone who went to India for a wedding.
“The whole thing has been portrayed in a very insensitive and negative manner by the WA Premier for political gains,” she says.
Canada has suspended all commercial and private passenger flights from India and Pakistan for 30 days from April 22. Some countries, such as Germany, Italy and the UK, have also banned travel from India but are allowing their own citizens to return home.
“I can just see a disparity,” Ms Shah says.
When the suspension is lifted, Ms Shah is looking at paying $10,000 to get home, including flights and hotel quarantine.
“Many people like me have endured so much to get to India. No one would want to spend that much money and emotional distress to go from a COVID-safe country to a hotspot if they want to have a nice time, which is how it has been portrayed in the media and by the government.”
Ms Shah says friends in Melbourne are rallying around her husband Sid, Kiyara and her seven-year-old sister Sara, with a WhatsApp group set up to co-ordinate the delivery of meals.
“It’s very difficult. The children ask every day when I am coming home. Kiyara has been so traumatised she doesn’t let my husband get out of sight because she thinks he will leave as well.”
Kim Sharma also went to Mumbai in January to support her family after her father died. She had been planning to return in May but she and her husband Pankaj panicked when Mr Morrison last week announced a 30 per cent reduction in flights.
“We will do everything what you want us to do, we will pay by taking our credit cards or loans or borrowing money to come back. But if you shut the doors, what you’re doing is killing hope,” Mr Sharma says.
The couple run a food truck and social enterprise in Perth called Toast My Curry, which donates some of the profits to food and education in Mumbai.
“We came here eight years ago, we are taxpaying Australian citizens,” Mr Sharma says.
“I’ve never faced racism, but now if you go into any social media group I’m seeing people go like, ‘Oh, let them stay there, we don’t care, just close the borders.’
“And if anyone says, ‘We have family there, we had to be there,’ you should see the shit they are facing. These are regular individuals so if a government body doesn’t stand up and show a compassionate side people say, ‘Great decision, you just stay where you are.’ And these are citizens. Australia is our home.”
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