Para Paheer is a Sri Lankan man who has always stood up for what he thinks is right. Now living in Victoria, he’s standing up for fellow refugees who don’t have a voice.
As a university student, Para became involved in student protests against the Sri Lankan government.
“We students believed that large-scale protests against the government would be noticed throughout the world, and that it was safer if many of us were involved,” he explained.
But the military and police focused on students and some of Para’s friends were killed.
“As the leader of the student union, I was targeted and beaten badly,” he said.
Para eventually realised Sri Lanka was no longer safe for him. With his wife Jayantha and baby son Abi, he fled to India, but the young family lived in constant fear of being returned to Sri Lanka.
Para was so desperate to escape and make a life for his family that he fled in an unseaworthy boat. His plan was to reach safety in Australia, and then send for his wife and son.
“I am a typical asylum seeker,” Para said. “I had to leave to avoid being killed. I had already been terribly tortured.
“With me were teachers, doctors, engineers, IT experts – all good men whose only ‘crime’ was being Tamil. The boat was terrible – but the alternative was worse. “Another boat that left at the same time as ours was shelled by the Sri Lankan navy, with no survivors.”
After 30 days at sea, Para’s boat sank in the Indian Ocean. He survived 22 hours in freezing water before being rescued by a gas tanker. It was 2 November 2009 – Para’s 31st birthday.
Para was then sent to Christmas Island, where he was detained for two years.
“This was a terrible time,” Para said.
“Of course, I was thankful and happy to be saved from drowning, but I could not understand why I was kept in detention, unable to work, hardly able to even speak to my wife.
“It was such a waste of time and money.
We were all fit, young men, wanting to work, but kept in prison for no crime.”
Para said the way the Australian government processes refugees is inhumane.
“This government calls people who come seeking asylum ‘illegal maritime arrivals’ and imprisons them offshore or in remote detention centres with terrible living conditions and new cruelties every day,” he said.
“It is even worse now for refugees. Since July 2013 they have been sent straight to Nauru or Manus [Island], where the conditions are really terrible. For years they have been left there with no processing of their cases. They can see no end to their suffering.”
Para’s life changed in Australia when he was released into the community and into the home of Alison Corke.
Alison began writing to Para while he was on Christmas Island, as part of the Rural Australians for Refugees program. They formed a solid friendship and, when Alison learned Para could qualify for community release, she immediately offered her home.
When Para moved in with Alison and her family, his new life began. He worked on his English and found a job cleaning factories and hotels. He also started the arduous process of applying to bring Jayantha and Abi to Australia. During this time, Para accepted a role in the Nauru Detention Centre as a cultural adviser assisting Tamil detainees.
Para then returned to Australia and began working as a ward assistant at Geelong University Hospital. All the while he worked to bring Jayantha and Abi to live with him, battling challenge after challenge, until eventually they were reunited after almost eight years apart.
“How can refugees deal with the bureaucracy of the Australian government?” he asked.
“Our family is complete and we are so happy to be reunited. But the years of separation and constant fear have left us feeling damaged.”
Despite the challenges, Para’s family is thriving in Australia and, after such a long time apart, he loves having them here.
“I am able to enjoy simple things, like taking Abi to school, meeting his teachers and helping him with his homework,” Para said. “My wife is learning English. We have many friends and we feel safe and supported. We do not have to worry about bombs, kidnapping, arrests, war, arbitrary shootings.
“It is really wonderful to feel so safe.”
To show his gratitude to those who had helped him and his family, Para wrote a book called The Power of Good People.
But Para said it can be hard to truly enjoy this freedom when he feels the Australian government is doing so little to help others.
“Our challenge is this: how can we enjoy this life when we know there are so many innocent people still suffering torture, in prison in their own countries, or in detention here?” he asked.
Para believes refugees have much to offer the Australian community, and a change to inhumane offshore processing is the answer.
“The process could easily be changed to check the refugees’ backgrounds, release them into the community so they can work and support themselves and then, in time, allow their wives and children to join them,” he said.
“I wish people could understand how much we miss our homes. I am a refugee, not because I wanted to live somewhere else, but because circumstances have made it impossible for me to remain in my home country.
“My heart goes out to people fleeing other places – Myanmar, Syria, Iran, Sudan…all countries affected by war or suppressive governments. We all loved our homes but we have been forced to move.”
Para wants people to understand just how easily life can change for anyone.
“Wars happen, and are usually caused by powerful nations. People can become refugees almost overnight. It is a matter of chance, so please help refugees and support them. One day it could be you.”
Para Paheer and Alison Corke will share their story at the SacredEdge festival held at the Uniting Church in Queenscliff from 4 to 6 May. For more information go to: www.unitingqueenscliff.org.au/Queenscliff-Point_Lonsdale_UCA/SacredEdge.html
The Power of Good People is available at: wilddingopress.com.au
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