The Donagemma family is praying that they won’t be forced apart by immigration rules when their youngest daughter desperately needs them to stay together.
Benedetta was born just before her twin Matteo but unlike him is non-verbal and has a developmental delay due to a rare chromosomal difference.
“She’s precious, that’s all I can say,” says Matteo of his sister, as he towers above her and she wraps her arms through his. “Technically speaking she’s my older sister as well, so she gets to boss me around.” At that, Benedetta smiles.
The pair turned 18 last November and while Matteo has a student visa, Benedetta has been dependent on their parents’ visas which both expire in March.
Her father Vanni, a geologist, was invited to work in Australia in 2006 and with his wife Elisa made their home first in Perth then Sydney, and raised their five children, Francisco, 26, Andrea, 24, Chiara, 21, and the twins. It hasn’t been easy but they’ve been happy to pay taxes, full school fees and medical costs as they haven’t qualified for Medicare or other social services.
The family belong the St Agatha’s parish in Pennant Hills in Sydney’s northwest, and Vanni says that Benedetta is the glue who holds them together. Seeing them in their home interacting with the red-haired bundle of infectious energy, it’s hard to argue any different.
Vanni lost his job in 2021 due to the COVID pandemic and has been looking for work that aligns with his 30 years’ experience in the oil and gas sector, work that’s necessary for him to continue on his working visa status.
In a few weeks if he can’t find a suitable employer willing to sponsor him and unless the Minister for Immigration decides to intervene in their case, they will be forced to take Benedetta and leave Australia permanently, ripping the loving family apart.
She will be separated from her siblings including her twin and will never be able to return to live in the only country she has ever known due to Australia’s restrictions on migrants and refugees with disability. Her parents are worried that the effect on Benedetta will be devastating, who with her profound communication difficulties is utterly dependent on her siblings’ close ties.
And they worry about her future, when they are unable to care for her and she is stranded from the rest of her family in Australia.
Immigration to Australia is governed by the Migration Act and while discrimination on the grounds of disability is against the law in Australia, the Department of Home Affairs is exempted when dealing with potential migrants and refugees with disability.
The rules are meant to ensure that health and social services are not overburdened, and there are strict health requirements to obtain permanent residency. Benedetta did not pass them to her parents’ surprise as they say she doesn’t require therapy, surgery, or medications for her condition.
They argue that their daughter is not a burden, and while she may not be able to secure employment in her future, she is one of a close-knit family of seven where the other six are already employed or employable and happy to pay taxes.
Her sister Chiara has even represented Australia four times as a national synchronised ice-skating champion.
“We’re not against the immigration system,” says Elisa.
“We understand there needs to be regulations about people coming to live here and that’s part of what makes it a nice place to live. So we appreciate that there are rules and that people come here because they have a job and need to learn the language and so on.
“We are Italian but our children are Australian, they grew up here. There is no future for them in Italy.”
More than 24,000 people have signed a change.org petition asking for Benedetta to remain at home in Australia and the family’s plight was featured on A Current Affair.
Fellow St Agatha’s parishioner Celina Daniels is one of many friends who is praying the family can stay together for Benedetta’s sake.
“They are a beautiful family, very Catholic. Elisa used to come to my rosary group, they go to every Sunday Mass and the first Friday devotions. They’ve been here for so long, why should they be forced to start all over again?
“We keep hearing that our population is in decline and we need more people to come here. Why not fix the situations of people like them now, first? They are already integrated in Australia, they’re already producing taxes.”
Vanni said over the last months of incredible stress and uncertainty, the spontaneous outpouring of support from the parish has been amazing.
“It’s an incredible support network. They do everything for us, bringing us food, some financial donations, trying to help connect me with potential employers, the people are just wonderful.”
“All the just warms your heart. It makes us feel that we are not alone. But what about those in similar situations who need just as much help but don’t receive the same attention?”
The couple have a devotion to Australia’s first saint, St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, after their former parish priest in Perth gave them a statue of her as a parting gift.
“Every time we have a visa problem we always go to her,” said Elisa, smiling. “We think she must say, ‘Oh no, are you back again with the same problem?’”
“This is what many people really don’t understand about us,” adds Vanni.
“There really are worries and we are very worried about Benedetta because it’s a matter of her life, truly. But we always felt something I can’t explain, that somehow everything will be ok. I told my wife once that I definitely felt like I was in the boat when Jesus was sleeping and we all worried and he woke up and said, ‘Why? I’m here’.
“And this is really a terrible storm but that’s exactly the feeling.”