Finally, first in family

As I interviewed Katelyn Mills for this story to mark NAIDOC 2021 at SBS, I kept thinking about the book I’m reading, Who Gets to be Smart by Bri Lee. To me, Katelyn represents so much of the good fight when it comes to injecting the educational system with some horribly overdue balance – and perhaps even helping to dismantle the pervasive, oft-poisonous reach of the kyriarchy.

As she says, ‘I’ll come back here and show you all how to do it!’

Sovereignty was never ceded. This is, and always will be, Aboriginal land.

Read Katelyn’s story in full at SBS.

Here’s a little taster:

Katelyn Mills, 24, is a Gamilaraay woman studying a Master’s of Research in Education. She is from Moree, NSW, and lives in Sydney. She spoke to Daisy Dumas about being First in Family having graduated from Macquarie University in 2020 with a Bachelor of Education, majoring in Biology and Chemistry.

University felt in reach and out of reach. Growing up in Moree, my family didn’t put too much value towards education – if we weren’t up for going to school my parents didn’t really mind. I think that’s what motivated me to go to school, it gave me a sense of independence and structure I didn’t have at home. I’ve always looked up to my teachers and they inspired me to become a teacher.

As I got older, those dreams seemed more and more unattainable. As I learned more about the education system, the discrepancies between metropolitan and rural schools, and the public and private sectors, I lost a bit of hope for my future.


Living in limbo, unable to leave

It is exactly six months and one week since my mother died on a raining November evening in England. The country had just been thrown into another lockdown, this time with schools open and pubs shut. The sun shone once that day, a curtain of silver that poured from a split in the deep grey and dissolved as quickly as it appeared.

Read my latest for The Guardian here.

Or my version in full here:

It is exactly six months and one week since my mother died on a raining November evening in England. The country had just been thrown into another lockdown, this time with schools open and pubs shut. The sun shone once that day, a curtain of silver that poured from a split in the deep grey and dissolved as quickly as it appeared.

I know, because I was there, under the West Country sky. And I was there because I had, in a haze of panic and sick with fear five days earlier, somehow mustered enough clarity to fill in an exemption to leave application and satisfy the Australian government’s unique and harsh border restrictions. I had scrambled for letters from doctors, submitted images of my dying mother, bought flights I knew wouldn’t fly, flung winter clothes together for myself and my two toddlers and kissed my husband goodbye, not knowing when we’d get back to him. I doused my children in sanitiser as we made our way through darkened, hushed airports, bus terminals and train stations in three countries. By the time I reached my mother in her care home, I knew only to strip away my regulation top-to-toe PPE and climb into her bed, resting my head on her shoulder and stroking her soft, cool hand.

Tonight, here I am, half a year on, listening to the news of another Australian man and his Indian mother dying from Covid in India. In Sydney, her remaining son is pleading to allow his grieving 83-year-old father, who survived Covid, to join him in Australia. He would have heard, of course, that borders will most likely stay tightly shut until June 2022 – and that, as a non-citizen, even as a parent of an Australian, his chances of gaining an exemption to enter the country are next to impossible.

Last winter, I wrote about my fears of being unable to get to my sick mother in the UK and how, for better or worse, my life in Australia depended on the air traffic that blights the skies but delivers so many of us to our loved ones. It turned out that the very worst did eventuate – but, in a perversity of norms that could only be wrought by a deeply human crisis, it also turned out that I’m very fortunate, given this moment, in this place, in this pandemic.

I’m Australian and I got to her in time. For every story like mine, there are hundreds, if not thousands, that end with a computer-says-no thud.

I have heard of babies who haven’t met their fathers and wives who haven’t seen their husbands in 18 months. There’s a friend whose father passed away from Covid and couldn’t get to him in time. And another, whose Czech father hid the extent of his stage four cancer from her so that she wouldn’t have to confront the risk of no exemption and dumbfounding costs of flights, given all he had heard about our isolationist way. Then there’s my British father, who’d very much appreciate coming to scatter his Australian wife-of-nearly-50-years’ ashes, sort out her affairs and spend time with his Australian daughters and grandchildren. Yet, parents don’t count as close family and so, the answer, once again, is a no.

Like so many here without family overseas and those looking on from abroad, he doesn’t get it. They can’t get their heads around our border closure. Is that even allowed? they ask.

I completed hotel quarantine with a two- and a three-year-old while grieving. It wasn’t hard compared to the haze of uncertainty that came before it on Australian soil – not being able to freely visit my unwell mother, the fears over how I’d secure an exemption and afford flights, the predicted (and extremely pricey) battles to get seats home to Sydney. No, quarantine was fine. Quarantine makes sense. It’s the lack of a plan that really wears a soul down.

November feels like a bad dream, but the perversity continues, because, now, after my mother’s death has come a sense of grim relief. The limbo of watching from afar, helpless and desperate, is over. I will never have to submit another exemption to travel request to the heavy machinery of the federal government moments after seeing her, supine and hollow-cheeked, as a nurse held an iPad over her deathbed. And with that knowing, that immensely sad knowing, the stories of the missed deaths and illness and human moments strike me with the force of a body blow. I got out and came back when so many couldn’t and won’t – and their limbo stretches on. For now, they must wait for the too-slow vaccine rollout to unfurl and for confidence to nudge away fear on one hand and easy, gilded disconnection on the other.

The virus will reach us, no matter how long we are kept apart from family and loved ones, no matter how long we are prevented from finishing university courses and starting jobs and maintaining businesses and giving safe harbour to refugees. Keep us locked in and the world locked out until Doomsday and the virus will still find us, smug hermits, suntanned but alone.

When I was a little girl, my school motto was ut sibi sic alteri. Treat others how you’d like to be treated. Nowadays, I’d add: even, and especially, when fearful. It’s what makes us human.


Please can we go home, now?

My story for The Guardian, about being marooned in a beautiful and distant place, isn’t about shipwrecks and daydreams, it’s about me and so many others all over the world whose lives depended – rightly or wrongly – on planes. Coronavirus, then, has put a spanner in the works…

Read it over at The Guardian, or below:

With borders closed, our lifelines to family overseas have been cut. The isolation is suffocating

The first exhibition I visited when I arrived in Sydney in 2010 was called On Their Own: Britain’s Child Migrants. I stumbled across those gut-wrenching stories, and their tragically false promises of a better life, as I wandered alone around the city I was born in but hadn’t lived in since I was two. What I saw in those photos and letters at Australia’s National Maritime Museum wasn’t the land of milk and honey I’d dreamed of – that progressive, independent, free-spirited modern life my Australian mother fondly imbued in us as we grew up, oceans away. Instead, I saw a nation filled with people who had come against their will from far, far away, building their new lives on land owned and lived on by a people and culture pushed far, far from their homelands and the mainstream. Children torn from their parents, hearts broken across hemispheres and deserts and whole cultures disjointed from their song-guarded spiritual homes. How many lives in Australia are built on loneliness, I wondered?

They came by boat two centuries ago, they came by boat in the 1960s and they attempt to come by boat now. I came by plane, and I chose to come. But it doesn’t matter how we got here. The point is that the vast majority of us came from somewhere else – and, whether through family, or stories, or on paper or in feeling, are still entangled in that somewhere else.

My tight tangles come in the form of friends and family. My parents and a sister live in the UK, my parents-in-law live in Germany, another sister lives in Dubai. And so, my life, like so many lives in Australia, is partly held in place by a scaffold of planes and airports, bouts of jetlag and survival tips on travelling through the stratosphere in a speeding metal canister with two toddlers for 24 hours.

Covid-19 has thrown a spanner in the works. For some, this strange moment in time will forever be remembered by loneliness, as those living solo bounce around quiet apartments, tend to pot plants and Zoom family and friends. For others, it’s the utter opposite: their time, their body, their privacy all noisily sacrificed to family as they isolate together from the long tentacles of this kraken-like virus. They are living at work and at school and at home all at once and the end is nowhere in sight. For many, it’s far worse. Illness, intubation, loss and questions. For me, the pandemic has become about existing too far away.

Each English summer, I’d fly back with my babies and spend a few months with my mother, who has early-onset dementia, and my father, and my sisters and my German family. It was doable, back then, before a novel coronavirus wiped out the global air industry, closed borders and shut down the seemingly endless flow of people around the world. Before the viral age, airborne rivers of human bodies poured from Beijing to Tokyo to LA to London to Johannesburg to Abu Dhabi to Moscow to Istanbul to Calcutta. Aircraft hopped from city to city, over mountain ranges and deltas and family separation and detached friends and brought pieces of me together. It couldn’t – shouldn’t – have lasted as it was, pumping carbon into the atmosphere at the rate of knots, but I hadn’t expected those lifelines to dissolve quite so dramatically and indefinitely.

The upshot is that I’m trapped in a wonderful place that, to me, worked because of the planes that came in and out, and because of the borders that allowed me to travel freely. I came for work, for my Australian family, for the lifestyle, and I reconciled living 15,000km from my sick mother by telling myself I could be with her in less than 48 hours, if the worst came to the worst. Now, even if I could somehow abracadabra my way to Heathrow, I couldn’t get to her anyway – she’s been in strict isolation in her high-needs nursing home since March, no touch from her husband, no visits from her children, no scudding clouds overhead or smells of just rained-on concrete to break the monotony of her months.

Being from somewhere else is all I’ve ever known. I’m a classic third-culture kid – two parents from different sides of the world, bringing children up in a yet another range of countries and continents. I’m used to feeling a little dislocated, but this feeling, this new government-mandated isolation on a national scale, is different. With every slowly processed application to leave Australia, every new cap on the number of international arrivals, or every $3,000 hotel quarantine bill, the bubble of Australia – fighting fit but utterly cut off – becomes more suffocating.

I’m in good, if a little lost, company: 34% of Australia’s population over 15 years old – some 6.9 million people – were born overseas. Every one of my toddlers’ daycare friends has grandparents overseas. We all made this far-reaching life work, because we knew, if things went pear-shaped, we could be on a plane home within hours. That comfort has frittered away, like an air mattress deflating without warning. We can go, sure, but it takes an application to the government to leave, then a lottery to find flights to get back to Australia, then the expense and difficulty of hotel quarantine for a family of four. I have friends who are sick with worry about not being able to visit elderly relatives, and there are all the missed funerals, missed births, missed weddings and missed grandchildren – missed, because, although we choose to live with immense distance, the all-important option of being able to be there, if we so choose, has been ripped away. One friend, in Dubai, couldn’t be with her husband as he died in the Philippines.

Through it all, I’m hyper aware that my needs are few and my comforts are many. But, even for those who have been forced into physical or emotional exile, for those who have no financial power, for those whose worries are far more immediate than I’ll ever know, I sense the basic need for human touch, for family, for home – in whatever form – is universal.

For forced migrants who find themselves in a new place they never expected, but most especially the refugees and asylum seekers who are now held in detention, itself a cruel, trident-headed isolation from new beginnings, from society, from life, homesickness – if that’s what this is – on a massive and interminable scale is, I imagine, wrapped into the ordeal.

So, thanks to this coronavirus, the great global experiment that, in recent years, invited so many of us to call so many distant shores our homes has lost a little of its sheen. Perhaps this version of FIFO, cross-pollinated living, toes physically dipped into different cultures and lands and languages and opportunities, relying on planes and planes alone to fuel those rivers of workers, families, of snatched weeks of togetherness, wasn’t such a good idea, after all. Or perhaps things will spring back to form, contrails criss-crossing the planet, delivering jetlag, grumpy toddlers and huge, irreplaceable parental hugs sooner than I fear.

One of the funny things about all of this is the hyper-connectivity that has gone unabated, even accelerated. As vulnerable to cyber attack as our lives may be, our virtual lives can’t be directly touched by this particular virus. But, despite all the video calls, my body still, resolutely, remains stuck in Sydney.

These days, I sometimes feel I might have taken a wrong turn and ended up in one of those black-and-white images I saw hanging at the maritime museum in 2010. A self-orphaned child miles from her loved ones and unsure where to turn, carrying a face mask and a useless passport, waiting to be rescued. And feeling very, very far away.

But perhaps that’s the nature of our nation. With the help of planes and technology, we’ve learnt to forget that we live with the tyranny of distance, that our isolation is in-built and deeply shapes our collective soul. Loneliness is part of the Australian condition. But, if I’m feeling like this in a stint that we know to be temporary – god help us if it doesn’t turn out that way – then I have no idea what it must have felt like for those helpless migrant children, or for the millions who are forced to leap from all they’ve known, never to return home.

Because, I know, unlike so many from these lands and beyond, that I came by choice and I will, when things settle, be able to leave by choice, too.