Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 8, 2018

The Power of Good People, by Para Paheer with Alison Corke

The Power of Good People is a refugee story with a difference, because – as the title suggests – it shows how ordinary everyday people can make a difference, often without realising it.

Co-written with his sponsor and mentor Alison Corke, Para Paheer tells of his long and circuitous path from the horrors of the civil war in Sri Lanka to safety in Australia, but his harrowing life seems not to have crushed his spirit.  After a short introduction by Alison Corke, and a 14 page explanation of the history of the civil war, Para begins his life story in a small village where his family lived in grinding poverty.  What is remarkable is the number of people who helped this bright boy to complete an education that would otherwise have been denied him.  From the girl who risked social sanction by lending him a bike to get to classes on time, to the teachers who gave him free classes, to an aunt who lent the family clothes for special occasions, and an uncle who gave the family money… none of these actions addressed the structural poverty that affected the family, but one by one, they were incremental actions that led to university and the prospect of employment in a real job.

Unfortunately it was a dubious kind of help that caused trouble for Para when he was at university.  He was given accommodation by activists who were in opposition to the government, and he became President of the Student Union.  Student activism made things uncomfortable for governments in Australia in the 1970s but it led to great things: the end of the Vietnam War and numerous social reforms for example. But in Sri Lanka during a Civil War, Para’s innocent extracurricular activities led to a chain of events that are harrowing indeed to read.  His ‘history’ at the university followed him everywhere he went, so that just getting to his work as a teacher through endless checkpoints was a daily ordeal, and inevitably he was picked up one day, interrogated, and tortured.  Suffice to say that he needed surgery when finally he escaped Sri Lanka.

Good and generous friends and family helped him to escape to India with his young wife and son, but there they were in constant danger of being repatriated to Sri Lanka.  The civil war had ended but the atrocities against Tamils had not, and finally Para decided that the best thing to do was to seek asylum somewhere safe.  And not knowing that Australia’s refugee policies have more to do with electoral success in western Sydney than the UN Convention on Refugees to which Australia is a signatory, he set off in a rusty old boat, hoping that Jayantha and Abi could join him once he was settled.

The story of this journey is distressing to read.  Para made friends with some of the others, so the reader knows some of the names and stories of those who drowned when the boat sank.  One death, within a hair’s breadth of rescue is particularly harrowing.  To learn that there was a nearby fishing boat that turned away is shocking, an action that the Australian coroner described as ‘callous and irresponsible’.  But Para is profuse in his thanks to Captain Brzica of the LNG Pioneer whose leadership enabled a difficult and dangerous rescue over two days: this tanker was the equivalent of six storeys above the water but they managed to haul aboard nineteen people who had been in the water for hours and hours and then treat them for hypothermia, exhaustion and malnutrition.  Para thanks Australia’s RCC (Rescue Coordination Centre) who remarkably made sense of a string of numbers that a befuddled Para – the only English speaker on board – read out from the cabin to an operator called Cindy – and somehow they decoded the latitude and longitude necessary to locate the sinking boat in an area spanning 74 million square kilometres.

I don’t know how they managed to figure out where we were,’ Para remarked.  ‘We were a tiny boat in the middle of a vast ocean, there were no other ships in sight, I was not able to give them much information and my English wasn’t good.  The satellite connection was terrible and kept dropping out, but somehow they did it.  They were amazing.’  (p.223)

Bouquets to Cindy and the team from RCC, and also to the anonymous Taiwanese interpreter who managed to persuade that fishing boat to turn back and help!  (The transcripts from the inquest show just how difficult this was).

Those of us who keep an eye on these things know that for Para, setting foot on Christmas Island was just the start of a long and demoralising process, and I leave you to read the story for yourself to find out about his struggle to be reunited with his family.

What I should comment on, however, is how well this book is written.  I have read quite a few refugee memoirs now, but this one is gripping, and it’s amazing to think that it all began with a kind-hearted gesture – Alison Corke becoming a pen pal to a refugee in a detention centre. You can read about this amazing woman here, but really, I recommend that you read the book.

Author: Para Paheer with Alison Corke
Title: The Power of Good People
Publisher: Wild Dingo Press, 2017
ISBN: 9780648066323
Source: Bayside Library.  (Wild Dingo Press sent me a proof copy, but I don’t read proof copies)

Available direct from Wild Dingo Press (where it is also available as an eBook) and from Fishpond: The Power of Good People: Surviving the Sri Lankan Civil War

 


Responses

  1. This sounds like a good read, especially if it is well-written as you say.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well done Alison, you are obviously a very caring person as well as writer. I admire what you do.

    Like

  3. I’ll move this on to my daughter who belongs to mothers for refugees and see if I can persuade her to another review. (I saw Wild Dingo Press in the Stella longlist, a great effort for what I assume is a tiny press)

    Like

    • Yes, I think they are small. I’ve read three of their books, this one, Just One Suitcase, and that book that’s longlisted, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. It’s special because it was written in Persian, here in Australia, and then translated. That doesn’t often happen, and if that book is any example of the talented Australians who can write brilliantly in their first language, then we should be doing a lot more to encourage it.
      (Hey, *chuckle* if you succeed with your daughter, you could aim towards renaming your blog, ‘Legend and Daughter’. It doesn’t have quite the same ring as Legend and Sons but that’s just unfamiliarity, eh?

      Like

  4. It’s thanks to Alison that Para’s story has been told.

    Liked by 1 person


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