When Perth man Yadwinder Singh arrived back in Australia from India last week, he brought a priceless gift – the young child of a total stranger.
Three-year-old Ashlyn Romana had been among more than 170 Australian children who have been stuck in India without their parents.
But after 15 months living with her grandmother in India, Ashlyn was finally able to come home to Sydney on Friday thanks to Mr Singh, who her mother reached out to on social media.
He had been in India since October 2020, having travelled to see his unwell mother.
As Mr Singh was preparing to come home, Ashlyn’s mother reached out to him over Facebook.
“She just asked me if I’m travelling alone and can I bring her daughter with me,” Mr Singh told SBS News. “I felt the pain in her voice, and decided I definitely would.”
Mr Singh, who has children of his own, said being a parent gave him experience in how to handle travelling with a small child who desperately missed her parents.
“I felt like I was travelling with my own daughter. We had a 14-hour stopover at Doha airport, and she was really comfortable with me,” he said.
“I’m very happy the family is together again. As a parent, I can feel the pain of parents being far apart [from their children].”
Ashlyn’s mother Harpinder Romana, 35, thanked Mr Singh for bringing her little girl home, describing him as a “lovely soul”.
“He took good care of my daughter, and I would like to say thank you to him – it’s been possible only because of him that he got my daughter back, and that once again we are reunited,” she told SBS News.
But she said that while Mr Singh was a “real gentleman” and a “really good person”, parents shouldn’t have to rely on strangers to bring their children home.
“The thing is, if we have to go and accompany our children with some strangers, if something happens, who is responsible? Is the government taking the responsibility? Ultimately, parents want their kids to come back, and they have no other option.”
During the 15 months she was separated from her daughter, Ms Romana was pregnant again. She said that when she applied for an exemption to travel to India to bring Ashlyn home, she was given one but her newborn was not.
She was not allowed to greet her daughter at the airport, but has been given a special exemption to join her in hotel quarantine.
Ms Romana said she is in contact with many other parents of unaccompanied minors in India, who feel the government is not doing enough to support them.
“We’ve been trying a lot to bring those 170 children back – writing emails to MPs and so on, but nothing has been done,” she said.
“Being away from the kids, it’s really painful. So many parents are struggling to get their kids back.
“My first hope was from the government, which turned out to be zero output. That is why I had to contact a stranger to get my daughter home.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on Sunday said the department was working with many families in India and elsewhere, to assist when where possible with the challenges caused by COVID-19.
“DFAT is working with families in India and Australia to ensure the travel of minors is undertaken in appropriate and safe circumstances,” the spokesperson said.
Ms Romana shared her family’s story as another 165 Australians separately arrived in Darwin from India on Sunday morning, on a repatriation flight.
Regarding the government-facilitated repatriation flights, DFAT said Qantas required minors to be accompanied by a parent, guardian or relative.
“Where we are aware of a child who is unable to take a facilitated flight, we work with their family in Australia and India to assist with their return to Australia,” the spokesperson said.
Sunday’s flight was the second such government-facilitated flight since the ban on arrivals from India was lifted. The first was marred by a huge number of positive COVID-19 results, leaving just 80 of the 150 seats filled.
DFAT is prioritising passengers who were barred from boarding the previous flight due to a positive test for future flights.
All passengers who were unable to board last week’s plane had been contacted to arrange their return flight, a DFAT spokesperson said.
Eight flights are scheduled by 4 June, with NSW, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland volunteering to take returning Australians.
Vulnerable Australians would be prioritised for those flights, the spokesperson said.
Of the 11,200 Australians in India registered with the government as wanting to return, about 1000 are considered vulnerable.