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Thursday, January 28, 2021

When your kids, 11 and 9, are stranded in locked down India

Sydney mum MOHANA DHOBLÉ recounts the harrowing tale of how she was reunited with her children - after knocking on the doors of some of the highest government officials - and thanks to the help of some complete strangers

Reading Time: 6 minutes


Last week, when I watched international travellers to Australia being escorted by the army straight into quarantine hotels in Sydney, I chuckled to myself and said, “Oh the poor things!”.  Little did I imagine we’d be those ‘poor things’ in a week!

My children, Aanya and Om, both under 12 years, study at a boarding school in India. About a month ago their school closed for summer holidays. They were supposed to fly to Sydney with my parents, but we cancelled the travel due to the COVID-19 situation; my parents, both over 65, recently had heart surgery.

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We didn’t want to risk exposure for them during international travel. Meanwhile, all of India went into lockdown. Our children were stuck in Mumbai for over a month. We hadn’t seen them in five months, and we couldn’t figure out a way to bring them to us with no international flights and the risk of exposing them to infection.

MOHANA recounts the harrowing tale of how she was reunited with her children , both her kids under the age of 12, were stranded in India during lockdown.
SA Health Nurse taking a nasal swab of Om for COVID 19 testing

Last week, I read a Facebook announcement about a special charter flight from Mumbai to Melbourne to bring stranded Australians home. I was told this might be the only flight from Mumbai to Australia for months to come. For the next couple of days, my husband Kannan and I made frantic calls and sent emails back and forth to make the necessary arrangements. Understandably, the charter company, Monarc Global, wouldn’t accept unaccompanied minors at this time. This flight was our only hope of bringing our children home to Sydney during an especially challenging time for the world.

Out of sheer desperation, I put out a message on the WhatsApp group for this flight – would a lady or couple travelling on the flight please agree to escort our children?

We were desperate to have the kids home given the current COVID-19 situation overall, but I wasn’t convinced it was safe to get the children on the flight because: (1) I was extremely worried about the exposure they’d have due to international travel; in fact I was paranoid they’d catch the coronavirus (2) I was very nervous about them travelling with a stranger  (3) There’s a full lockdown in India and even getting to the airport would pose a major challenge with special permits to be arranged. However, my husband was convinced we needed to get them home, no matter what. I decided to lay aside my apprehensions and go with his conviction – I would watch for signs that would guide me.

As luck would have it, Kannan’s friend Saisha Verma replied to my WhatsApp message – she was on the same flight and offered to escort our children home. Our hearts leaped with joy! Meanwhile another friend organised the necessary permits in Mumbai, so he could escort them to the airport. Within a span of a few hours, things were falling into place. All signs told us, ‘it’s time to do this!’

Less than 48 hours prior to the flight’s departure, we were informed it would now land in Adelaide. This meant a new challenge – SA has its own rules and its borders are closed.

The phone at the Australian High Commission, New Delhi, (we guessed should be our first point of contact for help) went unanswered. By a sheer stroke of luck, I chanced upon the mobile number for the High Commissioner, which was answered by a Consulate staff member. She took my details and promised to help. To us, this was the first sign of help from the Australian government, although our Group coordinators were constantly in touch with the High Commission to get things organised. The High Commission was working relentlessly – on Saturday, they issued us a letter authorising our children’s travel to Mumbai airport with our friend, but it was completely up to us to obtain permits necessary for this travel from Mumbai Police. Miraculously our friend Jayvardhan Diwan managed to obtain this permit in Mumbai, without which the children couldn’t have reached the airport.

With less than one working day left before the flight departed from Mumbai, we frenetically called SA Health, SA Police, COVID 19 helpline, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, whoever we could think might be useful. Unfortunately, there was no information available on how to go about the process and whom to approach. We had to fire many shots in the dark before finding the right authorities to help us. This was most frustrating, time consuming and discouraging at a time when time wasn’t on our side. On the SA Police helpline, one woman was particularly unhelpful and rude – she had me in tears of desperation. I realised I needed to approach a much higher authority.

Luckily, I had the number of the office of the Police Commissioner, SA. I called them, severely distressed. Once I reached the Commissioner’s office, things quickly changed gears. The officer (James) empathised with me, telling me he was a father of two little kids and knew exactly what I must be going through. I can never forget his words, “Leave it with me, I’ll work this out for you”. Within minutes, Inspector David Scutchings called and was on the job!

Dream reunion for the Dhoble-Iyers: Kannan, Om, Aanya and Mohana

Being international passengers, the children were to quarantine at a hotel in Adelaide for 14 days. How would they do this by themselves? I rang the office of the CEO of SA Health and insisted on speaking to a decision-making authority. SA Health have been absolutely wonderful and most helpful. On Saturday night, the Chief Public Health Officer of SA, Nicola Spurrier and her team called us at 8:45 pm to figure out the best option for our family. They’ve been working tirelessly to help returning citizens.

Things moved rather rapidly and efficiently since. Here we are, having driven 1,400 km from Sydney to Adelaide, now in quarantine with our children at Hotel Playford for 14 days. We can’t even step out of our room. However, I don’t feel we’re ‘poor things’ – the pain of being in quarantine is completely overshadowed by the sweet reunion with our children. Our contact at SA Health has been Monique, a wonderful lady and a thorough professional. She helped us get two adjacent rooms so Kannan could work uninterrupted during business hours. The staff at Playford Hotel are wonderful and very helpful, and we have dessert for lunch and dinner!

It’s taken lots of help from friends and strangers, officials and volunteers and a whole army of people working on the frontline and behind the scenes to get this organised. We can’t even begin to thank each person who has worked very hard to make this happen!

Om and Aanya with Saisha Verma, who escorted them on the flight.

A few points to note:

  • The entire effort to make this and some other flights from India possible has been coordinated and organised by volunteers. We haven’t met any of them, but these strangers have our deepest gratitude and respect. They worked relentlessly, sleeping only a few hours to get our loved ones home. Simon Quinn, Kimberley McLean (@barefoot_bliss), Owen Blackwell, Rushabh Ashar, Shubi Goyal and Amol are the only names I know. ‘Thank you’ isn’t good enough to express the gratitude of hundreds of people on that flight. You’re all rockstars, and deserve to be nominated for ‘Order of Australia’, for serving your fellow citizens so well

  • SA Health and SA Police have been super efficient, going above and beyond to help us
  • Monarc Global, the charter company, I understand, has worked on this operation with minimal margins, simply focussing on helping bring fellow Australians home
  • It is very inappropriate to use the term ‘mercy flights’. All of us have paid about 4 times the normal one-way ticket price (as they’re charter flights) – the government hasn’t paid a cent for these flights.
  • The Australian High Commission too have worked relentlessly and tirelessly to bring Australians home. However, citizens were left to their own devices to arrange for permissions and permits required within India – no Indian cop is going to recognise a letter from the Australian High Commission. They must work more closely with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs to facilitate the process and truly close the loop for stranded citizens
  • My takeaway: the usual helplines are thoroughly useless in such circumstances. You need to figure out how to get through to the powers-that-be, and then things start happening. The helplines are unfortunately managed by staff who simply read out a rule book to you and are completely averse to making any exceptions.

READ ALSO: Stranded Australians back home from India

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