In the name of my daughter
The Australian Women's Weekly|April 2021
When her 20-year-old daughter was brutally murdered in a Queensland hostel, Rosie Ayliffe needed answers. What she uncovered compelled her to launch a campaign to expose the dangers backpackers face in Australia, she tells Juliet Rieden.
Juliet Rieden
It was 10 o’clock at night and in their home in England’s Derbyshire Hills. Rosie Ayliffe and her partner, Stewart, were on the verge of turning in when a knock on the door plunged them into the abyss of every parent’s nightmare. Initially Rosie assumed the two policemen now in her lounge room were there for something trivial, but their demeanour quickly suggested otherwise. “There’s no easy way to tell you this,” one of them started. “Your daughter’s been involved in an incident – she’s been fatally wounded.”

The officer was trying to soften the blow, but how could he? Rosie’s only child, 20-year-old Mia Ayliffe-Chung, had been murdered in the most horrific circumstances, stabbed in a backpacker hostel half a world away in remote north-eastern Queensland. It was incomprehensible. Rosie had only spoken to Mia that morning. “It was very distant from me. It was as if I was watching myself going through those motions. I didn’t feel panicked. I felt numb,” Rosie tells The Weekly as she recalls those minutes four-and-a-half years ago when “my reason for being was taken away”.

“Apparently denial is a form of coping strategy. You see, Mia was still in Australia as far as I was concerned. In my heart she was still out there. My brain knew that she was dead but I wasn’t accepting it. I didn’t accept it until Christmas [that year]. It took me five months to accept that she was dead.”

At the same time Rosie was hearing the terrible news, so was Mia’s father, Howard. The couple had tried for three years to get pregnant before Mia came along following a miscarriage, and while he and Rosie separated when Mia was barely three, leaving Rosie as the primary parent, Howard adored his daughter. “He was deeply shocked. He loved her very much,” says Rosie.

Light up a room

Mia was a chilled-out baby which Rosie jokes may have had something to do with Howard’s JamaicanChinese heritage and as she grew up developed an independent mind coupled with a zest for life and a deep sense of empathy. Rosie worked as a teacher and travel writer and from an early age Mia embraced different cultures and was eager to follow in her mum’s footsteps and travel the world.

Following the 9/11 attacks in the US, Rosie noticed a change in attitudes where they were living in south London and this, plus a desire for Mia to experience a country childhood, prompted her to move north. It was a big step for the single mum and Rosie was slightly concerned that Mia might face racism away from the multicultural capital.

“It was always a worry, moving into the great white hills here in Derbyshire, but this friend of mine, who was actually the head of year, took her into the classroom on the first day and she said all eyes were on Mia. She introduced the new girl and every hand in the class went up, particularly the boys: ‘Miss, can she sit next to me, she can sit next to me’.

“From then on, Mia was invited everywhere; she was very courted locally by older kids and younger kids and everybody. Her funeral was absolutely packed with young people – a thousand-plus not only in the church but all round the church.”

By all accounts Mia entranced everyone she met and Rosie saw a bright future for her little girl. “I told her that she could do anything she wanted to do,” says Rosie. “She had qualities that I didn’t have and didn’t have qualities that I did have. I was bookish and studious and she was this light – she lit up a room. When I said that to her she was absolutely delighted. I actually told her to forget university. You’re not that person. You are the front of house. You’ve got charisma, you’ve got other skills. You have the ability to lead.

“Mia was fun but very levelheaded. She didn’t discriminate between the in-crowd and everybody else. She had a love of humanity and she built bridges between different sets and communities. She was also ambitious – much more ambitious than I ever was. She wanted to make something of her life. She wanted to push herself. I think she saw Australia as a place where she could make that happen.”

When Mia made up her mind to go travelling in 2015 it was Rosie she turned to for advice. Rosie had travelled extensively in her 20s, including living in Turkey. Mia loved hearing her mum’s tales and Rosie says those stories definitely prompted a desire to explore the world in Mia.

But though excited, Mia was apprehensive. She planned a trip through Asia en route to Australia. “She said to me, ‘will I be all right?’” Rosie recalls. “I said make sure you’ve got people who will look out for you, and dress appropriately. Look around you at how people are dressing and dress as they do.”

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