Our lives can hinge on the ability to make an impossible choice. For Paheer Pararasasingam, an ex-student union activist who goes by Para Paheer, this choice involved boarding a vessel bound for Australia. The boat was rickety. He was leaving behind his wife and baby son. He couldn’t swim. Yet after the bone-rattling fear of living as a Tamil during civil war, that stretch of blue between Sri Lanka and Western Australia symbolised the distance between a hellish reality and hopeful future.
“I had to decide, so I asked my wife, what can we do?” recalls Para, who was tortured and arrested at the hands of the Sri Lankan government before making the decision to flee and whose fishing boat, which was carrying 39 people, was rescued by a giant tanker called the LNG Pioneer. “The people smuggler organised a boat and it was very risky but we didn’t want to go back to Sri Lanka. After 21 days, when we were in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the boat got a hole in it and I was the only one who could communicate with the authorities. We couldn’t reach anyone for four or five hours. Before they came, our boat sank into the ocean. I was one of the only survivors.”
They are just people like us, they are the same.
Para recounts his extraordinary story in a new book called The Power of Good People. We can read it as a tale of reinvention that follows a young boy, born to a poor family in a Sri Lankan village, who through a dedication to studying, finds himself at university as a student leader. We can read it as an account of the senselessness of civil war, the mundanity of white vans and military roundups. Or given the fact that I’m speaking to Para while the government shuts down Manus Island detention centre — stranding 600 men without electricity, food or water — we can read it as a testament to the courage of refugees who often endure unimaginable obstacles in the quest for a better life.
But Para, who spent two years in detention on Christmas Island, believes that he wouldn’t have survived without the kindness of strangers — from the captain that rescued him to Alison Corke, the writer from Apollo Bay who co-authored his story. He started corresponding with Corke via letter while still in detention. These letters became his second life raft.
“When I was at Christmas Island, I asked if someone from the Australian community could write to me to improve my English and a grandmother from Apollo Bay called Alison contacted me and we started writing each other every day,” says Para, who now juggles a day job as a technician at Geelong Hospital with night shifts in an aged care home and was granted Australian citizenship in January this year. “I’ve lived with them for eight years. They helped me get my permanent residency and finally helped me bring my wife and son to Melbourne. They are the best people in the world. They changed my life.”
Before they came, our boat sank into the ocean. I was one of the only survivors.
Refugees can be demonised and painted as inscrutable and threatening. But Para says we should question the notion of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ “They are just people like us, they are the same,” he explains. “They had a serious reason to leave and everyone has a different story. No one wants to leave their families!”
In September, Para was reunited with his own family after eight long years.
“They arrived on the 30th of September and it was wonderful,” he grins. “It is very, very hard because we are starting our life again. I missed my son’s whole childhood. But yesterday, I was able to take him to school. It made me so happy.”
The Power of Good People is out in November and is published by Wild Dingo Press.
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