Para Paheer suffered excruciating torture, lost many loved ones, fled for his life, and endured eight hours in freezing waters after the boat he’d escaped on, sank off Australian Waters. This led to him spending almost two years on Christmas Island in a detention centre. He was achingly separated from his wife and son for eight years. Yet, when writing his memoir with the help of his ‘Aussie Mum’, Alison Corke, he wanted to focus on ‘The Power of Good People’ – which is aptly, also the name of the book.
Para was just five years old when the 30-year Civil War in Sri Lanka erupted. As Tamils, along with millions of other Tamils, his family was continually displaced, prejudiced against and persecuted. Para seized every opportunity, from collecting muddied coconuts to earn some money for the family, to becoming the student body President at University. After a student rally, Para ended up in hospital, severely and unjustly beaten. He only escaped death thanks to a woman who dragged him to the safety of her house after seeing him lying wounded in a gutter.
At University, he met and fell in love with Jayantha. It was a forbidden love because she was from a higher caste. Being with Para meant that Jayantha was disowned by her family. Despite this, they were meant to be together, so they married after graduating as teachers.
Their first school posting was in a Mannar, a district in the North West of Sri Lanka. It was a very poor area that relied on fishing. Nowhere was safe from the Civil War, and Para describes the atrocities that he and the locals endured. People would be kidnapped in white vans and never seen again, or they would turn up dead, dumped somewhere. The book becomes a real nail biter when Para is kidnapped in the white van. But thanks to the Power of Good People, he makes a narrow escape.
As it is unsafe to remain in Mannar, Para and Jayantha move to Columbo. More good people help them make their escape and resettle. With each upheaval, only the bare minimum can be taken. Here, Para has to take whatever work he can and he often works two jobs. In these circumstances their son Abi is born. Just when things begin to look up, Para is recognized as a past Student President and is kidnapped and tortured beyond belief. The series of events that leads to his release is yet again, thanks to good people.
Para and Jayantha must leave Sri Lanka. They make it to India where they are safe, but life is hard, and there is the very real possibility that they might be deported back to Sri Lanka. Events lead Para to do the unthinkable: part from his beloved Jayantha and Abi, get on a small, old fishing vessel with 39 other desperate Tamils, in the hope to get to Australia where they plan to settle and call for their families.
The chapters on the horrific journey, sinking of the boat and loss of 12 friends are heart-wrenching. Para finds himself in detention and luckily, Apollo Bay ‘Rurals for Refugee’ activist Alison Corke becomes his pen pal and eventually his sponsor and co-author. Tales of their first email exchanges brought tears to my eyes. When Alison read that Para’s family was so far away, she suggested that he call her his ‘Aussie Mum.’
Para has become an Australian Citizen and now calls Geelong home. We are pleased to say that after a heart-wrenching eight years, Jayantha and Abi have finally joined Para here. They are expecting their third child. Para is working at Geelong Hospital while studying nursing. Alison was not surprised that after publishing the book, Para insisted that all profits go to orphanages in northern Sri Lanka. If you’d like a copy of this ‘must read’ book, you can contact author Ali direct firstname.lastname@example.org or via https://wilddingopress.com.au/product/the-power-of-good-people-surviving-the-sri-lankan-civil-war/ (my copies arrived in 4 days)
Julian Burnside QC, Refugee Advocate says, “every Australian should read this book, so they can understand the horrors which cause people to flee.”
We at Humans in Geelong thank Para for sharing his story. Photos supplied. Top of collage shows Ali and Para at his Australian Citizenship ceremony – this photo courtesy Pam Hutchinson Photography, 26 Jan 2017.