While Priya and her family try to adapt to life in Perth, they long to be back in Bilo, back in the arms of the community that loves them
By Jen Gourley
In the little courtyard of a duplex in Perth, eggplant, okra, snake beans, chilli, spinach and mint are growing in a makeshift garden of plastic tubs and pots. It’s a far cry from the bounty of vegetables that Priya and Nades Murugappan once grew in their backyard in Biloela. Back then, their green thumbs and shared joy of gardening not only produced enough vegies for their little family, but also a plentiful supply for the Asian store at the local shopping centre in town.
Uprooted from their beloved Biloela in 2018, Priya and Nades and their two little girls, Kopika and Tharnicaa, were taken to Melbourne, then to Christmas Island and then on to Perth. They’ve now been living in the Western Australian capital since June 2021, unable to return to the little town in Central Queensland as younger daughter Tharni has been denied a visa.
Whenever a legal issue or court matter arises regarding their bid to stay in Australia, this family pops into the headlines for a day or two. However, many Australians, whose hearts have been touched by the plight of Murugappans, would be wondering what life in Perth has been like for them.
Catching up with Priya in a video chat, this gentle soul shares what the family has been up to in this latest chapter of their journey. Nades has been busy working long hours to support his family. For the first few months he juggled two part-time jobs – getting up at 5am to cook in a restaurant and then working as a cleaner in the evenings. He’s since found full-time work in another restaurant, whipping up all manner of delicious Indian delicacies six days a week.
The hours are still long for Nades but he takes a break in the afternoons to pick up his daughters from school.
“The girls have been missing their papa,” Priya says. “For a long time we were all together – four years.”
A close-knit family that has been through so much together, it’s understandable that Kopi and Tharni would be feeling the absence of their father.
However, the girls have settled into the new school year – both bright and loving their teachers and their schoolwork.
Social worker and close family friend, Angela Fredericks, regularly chats with the girls, who told her they were very excited to start back at school.
“Both the girls are very good with their reading and writing,” Angela says. “Priya worked very hard with them over the holidays. Often, I would phone and they’d both show me their writing. They’re good little writers.
“The first day back at school, Tharnicaa went to the library and that was her highlight – all the books.”
When they are not at school, the girls take Tamil language classes, twirl their way through dance lessons and ride the scooters they got for Christmas to nearby parks. Yet, like their parents, they yearn to be back in Biloela.
It’s Priya who has had the hardest time adjusting to life in Perth. With Nades working long hours and the girls at school, it’s been very lonely for her.
A talented seamstress, she keeps herself occupied sewing gorgeous outfits for her girls and as gifts for other children she knows, and she dreams that one day she might be able to sell her clothes in a shop in Biloela.
In the meantime, life carries on in Perth, but you can hear the heartbreak in her voice as she talks about the town and the people that she loves.
“I am ok, family ok, money, work, everything ok,” Priya says. “But my heart is not full. My heart will be full back in Bilo, seeing everybody.
‘I miss my friends, yes, my wonderful friends. Biloela is a very quiet place, very relaxed, peaceful, happy. Nades loved the work in Biloela.”
The loneliness in the big city of Perth overwhelms Priya as she remembers how she connected with the residents of Biloela and how much they cared for her and her family.
She spoke of a small country town where ‘lovely people’ say hello, where friends are family.
Priya says that in Biloela she would go to the shopping centre and she would see a close friend, who became like a mother to her, sitting having a coffee. ‘Mama’ would see her and say ‘Hi Priya, how are you, my darling?’ She would go to the shops and get so much love from lots of people.
Through their toughest time in Biloela, Nades and Priya would find comfort in the people they’d see each day.
“I only felt happy when I would go outside and see so many people who would greet me with “Hello, hi Priya, how are you?’ So many people sharing love with me, this gave me a happy life, money did not matter. In my house in Perth, I am doing ok, I can manage but I miss my happy life in Biloela. My heart only ever felt full when I was in Biloela.”
As she speaks of her love for the people of Biloela and how much she misses the community there, tears appear in her eyes, and she starts crying.
This woman who has lost so much, suffered significant trauma, and faced such uncertainty and stress, has been suffering from depression as well as loneliness.
“When I first met them Priya was also at that point, because Nades’ visa claim had been rejected,” Angela says. “So, they were living in constant fear that he was going to be sent back. And because of her PTSD from her first fiancé (who was killed in front of her in the most traumatic way) she knew Nades would be killed upon return. And that was while she was pregnant, as well. So, it was a hugely difficult time. And they would still be shopping at Woolies and they’d still have a smile on their face. They were so grateful. Wouldn’t want to inconvenience you, that’s just them.”
Angela explains that it’s not only Priya’s isolation in Perth that’s contributing to her intense loneliness, she’s also not used to life in a big city.
“Here (in Biloela) she felt safe. Walking, going down the shops, she knew that she knew people. Whereas in a bigger place there’s not that same confidence that people will look out for her.”
The family has been invited several times to visit people outside of the city but as part of their community detention they have a nightly curfew which makes it difficult to get away.
Fear also factors in to Priya’s loneliness. Fear of forming connections with new people only to be torn away from them, as has happened to her time and time again.
She’s scared to make new friends, Angela says. “She never knows when they are going to be ripped out of their home, so she can never really connect.”
Priya and her family formed such beautiful friendships in Biloela, only to be taken away by guards in an early morning raid. Then, whilst in detention in Melbourne, the Murugappans got to know Simone Cameron, who would visit them regularly and became a very dear friend. Then, they were ripped away again to be taken to Christmas Island. There, among that small community, they formed friendships with some lovely people, including Robyn Stephenson.
“Robyn and her two girls would visit them every weekend,” Angela says. “And they would see them most days, just passing by when they were dropping the kids off at school. So, leaving Christmas Island, again that was being pulled out of another community that they were really becoming a part of.”
And for Priya and Tharnicaa, it was particularly hard as Tharni’s medical emergency flight to Perth due to a life-threatening blood infection meant there was no chance to say goodbye to their Christmas Island friends.
“For Priya, there’s just this repeated trauma,” Angela says.
What would help Priya and her family? What would heal them? Returning home to Biloela.
“Biloela is my community,” Priya says. “I know that is where my girls will have a safe life. Everything is okay at the moment, but my girls are not safe until we are back in Biloela and I can join my community and be with my family.”
For now, Priya finds some peace in her courtyard garden.
“During stressful times, I go to my garden, look, water everything, and relax.”
In the meantime, the fight goes on to bring Priya, Nades, Kopika and Tharnicaa back to Bilo. This precious family of four has taken root in so many hearts across Australia, just like those thriving plants, tended so carefully by Priya, have taken root in the plastic tubs and pots over in Perth.
On Saturday, March 5, it will be four years since Priya, Nades and their girls were taken from their Biloela home. If you would like to help bring the spirit of Biloela to Priya, Nades, Kopi and Tharni in a nationwide online event on that date, you can register here:
Follow Bring Priya, Nades and their girls home to Biloela (@solidaritywithBiloela) on Facebook for more information and updates.