A five-year-old girl who was stuck in India for 18 months while her parents were in Australia has finally been reunited with her mother.
Johannah was visiting her grandparents in India when the pandemic struck and Australia’s borders were closed.
The little girl flew into Sydney on Monday, and is now in quarantine with her mother, Drisya. “Oh my god, it was so exciting, it’s not something that can be described in words,” Drisya told the BBC.
Drisya and Johannah’s father, Dilin, had been trying desperately to bring their young daughter to Sydney, however cancelled flights and rules on unaccompanied minors prevented their reunion.
Through a Facebook support group dedicated to Australians stuck in India, they were introduced to a couple - Linda and Joby - who were planning to move to Sydney themselves, and offered to accompany Johannah on the flight. “We got to know Linda over some weeks, and we trusted them,” Drisya said, adding, “They both took care of my child, it was so nice of them, we would like to express our gratitude to them.”
Linda and Joby also accompanied a second child on the Qatar flight, who was about the same age as Johannah. Drisya and Dilin are not the only parents to turn to other families for help - Australian media has reported on a number of parents relying on people who have agreed to act as the child’s guardian during the flight.
Drisya, who had found it hard to sleep during the ordeal and often cried through the night, said the relief was enormous.
“I could see how much my child missed me, she was just clinging onto me - even now she doesn’t leave 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 finished.
And it seems he had better come with berries, because that is what Johannah is looking forward to the most. “In her imagination, Australia is a land of strawberries, she loves berries, so getting into Australia is like getting into a strawberry farm,” Drisya laughed.
At the start of June, updated figures from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) showed there were 203 minors in India separated from their parents - although some have since returned on repatriation flights.
Most of the children, like Johannah, have been living with extended family members.
Dilin described their struggle to be reunited at an Australian Senate committee hearing last month.
He said there was a lack of support from the government, and rules that were out of their control were preventing her from being with them, including her age - Johannah was too young to fly alone on both the government’s repatriation flights and commercial flights.
They finally got her a seat on a chartered plane with a private company, however that flight was cancelled when the Australian government brought in a controversial ban on all arrivals from India - which has since been lifted.
With limited flights between the two countries, the couple did not want to risk flying back to India to be with Johannah, in case they could not return.
There has been widespread criticism of how the government has handled Australians stranded overseas - especially those who are vulnerable.
Drisya told the BBC on Thursday, however, that in the past few weeks they had received more support, including a dedicated case worker who said they could get an expedited visa for Drisya’s mother to fly from India to Australia with Johannah.
“But she isn’t in a position to travel,” Drisya explained, adding “there are many elements including the language barrier. That was our last option.”
“The government is at least doing something now.... Hopefully they’ll do much more. There are so many people who are still stranded in India.”
DFAT told the BBC that currently there are about 10,500 Australians in India registered as wanting to return, however it did not specify how many are vulnerable or minors.
“We want to see families reunited, but we must ensure the travel of minors is undertaken in appropriate and safe circumstances,” it said in a statement.
“DFAT is working with families in India and Australia to ensure the travel of children is undertaken safely. Each family is assisted on a case-by-case basis.”