A five-year-old girl who was stuck in India for 18 months while her parents were in Australia has finally found her mother.
Johannah was visiting her grandparents in India when the pandemic hit and Australia’s borders were closed.
The little girl flew to Sydney on Monday and is now in quarantine with her mother, Drisya.
“Oh my god, that was so exciting, it’s not something that can be described in words,” Drisya told the BBC.
Drisya and Johannah’s father Dilin was desperate to get their young daughter to Sydney, but canceled flights and rules on unaccompanied minors prevented their reunion.
Through a Facebook support group dedicated to Australians stranded in India, they were introduced to a couple – Linda and Joby – who were considering moving to Sydney themselves and offered to accompany Johannah on the flight.
“We got to know Linda for a few weeks and we trusted them,” Drisya said, adding: “They both took care of my child, it was so kind of them, we want to express to them our gratitude. “
Linda and Joby also accompanied a second child on the flight from Qatar, who was roughly the same age as Johannah.
Drisya and Dilin aren’t the only parents turning to other families for help – Australian media have reported that a number of parents are leaning on people who have agreed to act as as guardian of the child during the flight.
Drisya, who had difficulty sleeping during the ordeal and cried often throughout the night, said the relief was overwhelming.
“I could see how much I missed my child, she was just hanging on to me now, she’s not leaving me. It’s been a long wait.”
Only one parent is allowed to join unaccompanied children in quarantine, so Johannah will see her father when the 14-day isolation is over.
And it looks like he’d better come with berries, because that’s what Johannah is looking forward to the most. “In her imagination Australia is a land of strawberries, she loves berries, so entering Australia is like stepping into a strawberry farm,” Drisya said with a laugh.
Unaccompanied children in India
In early June, updated figures from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) showed that there were 203 minors in India separated from their parents – although some have since returned on repatriation flights.
Most children, like Johannah, live with members of their extended family.
Dilin described their struggle to be reunited at an Australian Senate committee hearing last month.
He said there was a lack of government support and rules that were out of their control prevented him from being with them, including her age – Johannah was too young to fly alone on repatriation flights and government commercial flights.
They eventually got him a seat on a privately-chartered plane, but that flight was canceled when the Australian government imposed a controversial ban on all arrivals from India – which has since been lifted.
With limited flights between the two countries, the couple didn’t want to risk returning to India to be with Johannah, in case they couldn’t return.
There has been a lot of criticism of how the government has treated Australians stranded abroad – especially those who are vulnerable.
However, Drisya told the BBC on Thursday that in recent weeks they had received more support, including a dedicated social worker who said they could get a fast-track visa so Drisya’s mother could fly from. India to Australia with Johannah.
“But she is not able to travel,” Drisya explained, adding “there are many elements, including the language barrier. It was our last option.”
“The government is at least doing something now … I hope it will do a lot more. There are so many people still stranded in India.”
DFAT told the BBC that there are currently around 10,500 Australians in India registered as wishing to return, but did not specify how many are vulnerable or underage.
“We want to see families reunited, but we must ensure that the movements of minors take place in appropriate and safe circumstances,” he said in a statement.
“DFAT works with families in India and Australia to make sure children’s travel is safe. Each family is assisted on a case-by-case basis.