Florence Udawatta is losing sleep and suffering from heart palpitations from worrying.
- After her husband died, Florence Udawatta and her children were given a month to appeal or leave the country
- They volunteer in the community and eldest son Ruvish is vice captain of his school
- The Immigration Department denied them protection visas, arguing they’re unlikely to be persecuted in Sri Lanka
She and her children Ruvish, Jeniffer and Duane are facing the prospect of removal from the community they have come to love and which has grown to love them.
Their regional town of Kempsey in New South Wales is rallying, demanding the Federal Government lets them stay.
The family’s conundrum is rare. They are facing deportation because of a tragic death that could not have been prevented.
Ms Udawatta moved to Kempsey in 2016 to join her husband Raj, who migrated from Sri Lanka on a 457 temporary work visa two years earlier.
Raj Udawatta migrated to Australia from Sri Lanka on a temporary work visa.(Supplied: Florence Udawatta)
He was the primary visa holder for the family and soon became well-liked in the community. As a mechanic, he often helped fix people’s cars on weekends and after hours at no extra cost.
Once reunited, the family threw themselves into community life and became devoted members of the Christian outreach church.
Florence Udawatta packs and delivers food to people in need.(ABC Rural: Lucy Barbour)
Each week, Ms Udawatta packs food parcels and delivers them to the homeless, while her 17-year-old son, Ruvish, is a youth group leader and has just been elected vice-captain of his school.
His goal is to study medicine and work as a doctor in a regional area.
Hirushi, his older sister, is training to become a chef.
Ruvish Udawatta dreams of becoming a rural doctor.(ABC Rural: Lucy Barbour)
Their siblings, eight-year-old Jeniffer and seven-year-old Duane pray every morning before jumping on the school bus with beaming smiles.
Family friend and church pastor Moira Hodgekiss said the Udawattas were an immigration “success” story.
“They just love people and people just love them … I have never heard them complain about anything.”
Jeniffer and Duane moved with their family from Sri Lanka to Kempsey.(ABC Rural: Lucy Barbour)
But the past few years have not been easy.
Raj Udawatta was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2018 and became so ill he could no longer work a key requirement of his temporary skilled visa.
Raj Udawatta was so sick he could not work.(Supplied: Florence Udawatta)
Fearing deportation, Florence Udawatta applied for protection visas.
She had not heard back from the Department of Immigration when the family celebrated her husband’s 50th birthday in September.
A day later, he died.
“Before he went off with the nurse, he hugged me and the kids,” she recalled.
“That was very hard for us. I didn’t think he would not be coming home.”
The Udawatta family made a life in New South Wales.(Supplied: Florence Udawatta)
Less than a month later, the department notified Ms Udawatta that her protection visa applications had been rejected.
It gave her one month to appeal the decision or leave the country.
“I am shocked. I can’t understand what is happening for us,” she said.
“As a mother, I have to be strong. I can’t show my tears for my children because they are also going down when I am crying, so I want to be strong and tough.”
The family’s application for protection visas was rejected.(ABC Rural: Lucy Barbour)
The department said the family was unlikely to be persecuted in Sri Lanka and had a house in Colombo they could live in.
But the family argued their home and community was now in Kempsey.
News of the decision reduced Ms Hodgekiss to tears.
“A family such as them that love and are so good and kind, it’s like generation stock that we need in this country. They will bring so much,” she said.
Jeniffer, Ruvish and Duane have grown up in Kempsey and consider it their home.(ABC Rural: Lucy Barbour)
Hirushi Udawatta is now on a student visa and can remain in the country, but she cannot bear the thought of saying goodbye.
“It is not my father’s fault he got cancer … we didn’t even get to finish grieving and we have to look for a reason to stop my family getting deported,” she said.
Ruvish and his friend Cameron Jeffrey.(ABC Rural: Lucy Barbour)
Her brother’s close friend, Cameron Jeffery, said it would be an “injustice” if Ruvish had to leave.
“There are so many people, in this community especially, that contribute nothing while Ruvish and his family are such upstanding citizens. He helps everyone and does whatever he can.”
Florence Udawatta has been cleaning houses to scrape together some cash, while the local high school and community have raised thousands of dollars to help.
Florence Udawatta has been cleaning houses to make money.(ABC Rural: Lucy Barbour)
She is hoping that Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge will intervene.
Former immigration lawyer and first-term federal Nationals MP Pat Conaghan said the Minister should use discretionary powers to allow the family to stay on compassionate grounds.
Pat Conaghan is the federal Member for Cowper.(ABC Rural: Lucy Barbour)
“I know that these people will do everything to stand on their own two feet. They don’t want to take charity,” he said.
“Raj was here working, he complied with all the conditions of his visa. It was just so tragic that he got cancer and died.”
In a statement, Mr Tudge expressed his “deepest sympathies” to the Udawatta family.
He said there were “mechanisms” within the Migration Act to “deal with compassionate and compelling cases”, but he added it would not be appropriate to comment further at this stage.
Ruvish Udawatta and his friends enjoy playing basketball.(ABC Rural: Lucy Barbour)