Home to Bilo campaigners for Tamil asylum-seeking family await weekend reunion

With decorations prepared and ‘welcome home’ signs ready, the town of Biloela in central Queensland is making last-minute preparations for the arrival of some long-lost, but far-from-forgotten, locals.

The Home to Bilo campaigners have collectively held their breath for four years, but won’t sigh with relief until the Nadesalingam family touches down on home soil at the end of the week.

The grassroots campaign has kept national attention on the asylum-seeking Tamil family since they were taken from Biloela, where the family had been living on temporary bridging visas.

The Department of Home Affairs has consistently said their case for asylum was comprehensively assessed and the family did not meet Australia’s protection obligations.

Their fate hung on a change of government and the new Labor government swiftly granted the family bridging visas, allowing them to return to Biloela while they awaited their case to be resolved in court.

So, who are the people behind the Home to Bilo campaign and how have the events surrounding this family shaped their lives?

Social worker turned political candidate: Bronwyn Dendle

Bronwyn Dendle is a social worker and mother of five who has been advocating for the Nadesalingam family well before they were taken into immigration detention.

Bronwyn Dendle has been advocating for the Nadesalingams well before they were taken into immigration detention.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

Priya Nadesalingam was referred to Ms Dendle through the Biloela Hospital for support after she gave birth to their oldest daughter, Kopika.

“I got to know her story and her amazing life journey … and what she had endured in her country of origin in Sri Lanka and just what she’d had to do to survive and then make her way to safety in Australia,” Ms Dendle said.

“The same with Nades. They were an amazing, inspiring couple. The way they just dedicated themselves to the community … considering so much trauma they had lived through.”

After learning about Australia’s asylum seeker policy, Ms Dendle started writing letters to then-immigration minister Peter Dutton to try to secure the family’s visas.

“When I heard that, I just thought we really need to do something about this.”

Ms Dendle said she was restricted because she worked for a government organisation.

“I was told quite clearly from the beginning that I couldn’t continue to advocate for the family publicly, which was absolutely crushing for me,” she said.

With five kids and a mortgage, quitting her job wasn’t an option, so Ms Dendle approached Angela Fredericks and the Home to Bilo campaign was formed.

Angela Fredericks and Bronwyn Dendle speak to the family on the phone.
Social workers and friends Angela Fredericks and Bronwyn Dendle started the Home to Bilo campaign together.(ABC Capricornia: Jasmine Hines)

Ms Dendle is now running as the Labor candidate for the Queensland seat of Callide in this month’s by-election.

‘More to life than detention’: Angela Fredericks

Angela Fredericks is a well-known face of the campaign.

The Biloela social worker became close with the Nadesalingam family after they went into detention and has held regular video calls with them, even visiting them on Christmas Island.

Visiting 'the Biloela family'
Angela Fredericks became close with the family during their time in detention through regular phone calls.(Supplied: Angela Fredericks)

“Over the last four years, there’s been so much trauma and so much heartbreak … and I really wanted to help sustain them,” she said.

“It was that incredible guilt of talking to them while they’ve been in detention … I’ve travelled overseas, I’ve gone to the theatre, I’ve done all this amazing, fun stuff and it got to that point where we actually needed to talk about that stuff because their life was so mundane.

Priya with Angela Christmas Island
Angela Fredericks with Priya during one of her visits to Christmas Island.(Supplied: Angela Fredericks)

Ms Fredericks said it was surreal to finally prepare for their homecoming.

“For four years, we have been holding our breath,” she said.

Angela Fredericks speaks at a protest outside the Qantas AGM in Brisbane.
Ms Fredericks speaking at a protest in Brisbane in 2018.(ABC News: Tim Swanston)

Student to lawyer: Simone Cameron

In the time the Nadesalingams have been in detention, fellow campaigner Simeone Cameron has become a lawyer.

“I actually finished that law degree before they’ve been released … I hope to be admitted to the Supreme Court as a solicitor later this year,” she said.

“It’s just incredible to think about … that’s such a big chunk of their lives.”

Ms Cameron grew up in Biloela and now lives in Brisbane. She first met Nades when she was running migrant English programs.

“I had no idea at the time of the stress and the pressure that he was under with his uncertain immigration status in Biloela,” she said.

Angela, Simone, Saivashini and Bronwyn smiling at a laptop, mugs in the foreground.
Angela Fredericks, Simone Cameron, Saivashini Jayakumar and Bronwyn Dendle speaking with Priya, Nades and the girls on a video call.(ABC Capricornia: Erin Semmler)

She said she was living in Melbourne when the family was first taken into detention and joined the campaign after hearing about the work of Bronwyn Dendle and Angela Fredericks.

“For a lot of people from Biloela, this started out on a very personal level in terms of just being about one friend or one family and we’ve all learnt together about some of the broader issues facing people seeking asylum,” she said.

Immigration lawyer: Carina Ford

Carina Ford is the Nadesalingam family’s lawyer who is fighting their case in the Federal Circuit Court.

Ms Ford got a call four years ago asking if she would take on the family’s case, not realising the scrutiny that would follow.

A portrait of a woman wearing glasses with dark blonde hair, serious facial expression
Immigration lawyer Carina Ford says it is a privilege to have represented the Nadesalingam family.(Australian Story: Simon Winter)

“It’s right up here with probably one of the more intense cases I’ve run, both in terms of litigation, but also in terms of trying to predict what happens,” she said.

“Also making sure we deal with the media and also making sure that our family is protected and still in a safe environment.

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