Refugee goes on long walk to take Australia on a journey

Sep 18, 2023
Refugee goes on long walk to take Australia on a journey

On 10 September 2023, at the end of refugee Neil Para’s marathon 1014 kilometre walk from Ballarat to Sydney, it was made public that Neil, his wife, Sugaa, and two daughters, Nivash and Kartie, had been granted permanent visas (his youngest, Nive, was born in Australia, and she was made a citizen when she turned 10). But this fact is taken from the middle of this story.

The traumatic start

Neil fled war-torn Sri Lanka for Malaysia in 2008. At the time, Sugaa was pregnant but he felt he had to temporarily leave her to find a safer and more stable home for his family. By 2012, the family was reunited, now with two girls, Nivash and Kartie, with Sugaa pregnant with a third child. The young family made the perilous journey from Malaysia to Indonesia then to Christmas Island on board a small fishing boat carrying in excess of 200 asylum seekers.

On arrival, the family was detained for a period, and then finally released into the Australian community with working rights. The family went to Ballarat in 2013 on a Bridging Visa, where they were welcomed by the community, most notable, Kath Morton. After four months, however, their working rights were inexplicably revoked, which meant they had no visa, no rights to work, no Medicare and no tertiary study rights. By then their youngest, Nive, was born.

Let them stay. Image: Supplied Sumitra Vignaendra

The people of Ballarat generously pay the family’s bills and rent. In return, Neil is a tireless volunteer for the SES and leads a crew, while Sugaa volunteers in aged care and the Ballarat Visitor Information Centre. Both are also actively involved in community committees.

Ballarat the journey begins. Image: Supplied Sumitra Vignaendra

Living and raising children when one’s status in Australia remained uncertain, however, was understandably excruciating. They applied many times for permanent protection, without success. Their many appeals against the rejection, and for ministerial intervention, were also unsuccessful.

Walking for freedom

Neil felt that the only way to be heard by the authorities would be to make the long trek through two states on foot to the Prime Minister’s electoral office in Sydney, petition in hand. And on the way, it was not just his story that he would share with the people he encountered, but also the stories of over 10000 refugees who were in similar straights, 2000 of which are families.

This was an incredibly brave act on the part of a refugee who had so much to lose by bringing his situation to the attention of the public in this way, not to mention the physical and mental toll of making such a trip. Sugaa also confirmed that it was the first time during their stay in Australia that he had been away from the family for such a long period of time. Preparing and training for his trek also forced him away from his wife and children for hours every day for months.

Neil reunited with Sugaa and the girls after 40 days apart.Image: Supplied Sumitra Vignaendra

Neil took this risk because he wanted to put a spotlight on the fact that over 10000 refugees were living in uncertainty, many for over 10 years, on visas with inconsistent and onerous conditions, or on no visas at all. Many refugees on these visas still do not have work rights, study rights, Medicare, or basic income support. Many are also dependent on the goodwill and charity of the community for a home and employment.

Touching hearts and minds

Neil was convinced that the public would be interested in these refugees’ stories, and respond with sympathy and support.

He was correct. At every town through which he travelled, people welcomed him, communities and some politicians supported him and councils arranged receptions. Supporters travelled from as far as Tasmania to walk with him, as well as fellow refugees from Iran, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Afghanistan, who travelled from Melbourne and other towns in order to be walking partners and to share their stories, including a large group who gathered at Shepparton’s Mosque in Victoria.

Neil’s walk also garnered the support of Melbourne’s Refugee Action Collective who helped coordinate the walk, supported by Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR) groups in both Victoria and New South Wales, and refugee support groups such as People Just Like Us. Long-time supporters, Ballarat RAR, led by convenor Margaret O’Donnell, were pivotal. Behind the scenes, hundreds of volunteers ensured Neil was accompanied by a support vehicle daily, and RAR members and other community members fed, housed and supported Neil, provided companionship and blister relief. Keiran Magee, a volunteer with Refugee Action Collective Victoria, meticulously detailed the daily route and logistics while a number of refugee advocates in New South Wales and Victoria coordinated media coverage. Supporters had weekly zoom meetings to ensure everything ran smoothly.

Individuals and groups donated funds for this journey – including the Iranian Women’s Association in Melbourne – and overly 20,000 Australians signed Neil’s petition – almost 20,000 electronically and others were handwritten – asking for permanent protection for refugees. The electronic petition was delivered electronically to the Prime Minister’s electoral office on 12 September.

Neil said: “My walk has achieved something by raising awareness about the refugees. I have provided evidence to the government that people support this move.

“I reached many teenagers which helped them understand the refugees’ plight.

“I enjoyed the beautiful colour of canola and made friends for life. Every Australian welcomed me with open arms. People opened their house to me, made meals, took care of me, drew signs and banners, businesses supported me.

“Road users were friendly, some stopped to talk, take a selfie or photos, ask me why I was walking, wished me good luck and shouted me coffees.

“It was also an honour to receive shoes from (Aboriginal Voice to Parliament Yes advocate) legend Pat Farmer and run with him and a privilege to have photos with him.

“I also met others like me and heard their stories; met their children, born here, wanting the right to study, live and work here. Met men who have not seen their fiancé or wife and children for years, and a teenager who won a law scholarship but cannot access it.

“I am really proud I was able to do this with my amazing team; without them and without any support along the road, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. So many friendly drivers, so many supporters, so much encouragement from all types of organisations, thank you everyone for supporting this walk.”

Paul Power, CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia, walked one stretch with Neil. Power told Neil: “It’s great to see the support you are getting as you walk across the country; it’s been effective in mobilising and drawing attention to the people left in limbo for so long.

“There are thousands of people for whom it is untenable to return to their country of origin. There are many with compelling cases that need to be examined. The situations you are highlighting are shared by thousands in Australia and we are trying to raise this issue with the government.”

The journey ended in Sydney

When Neil arrived in the Greater Sydney Area, a dinner was organised jointly by the Australian Tamil Refugee Council, Consortium of Tamil Organisations NSW/ACT, TRACK (Tamil Rehabilitation and community Konnection), THADAM (an NGO based in Sydney which focuses on mental health in the Tamil community), the Australian Tamil Congress Uniting Church Tamil congregation, and the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce of National Christian Council.

Journey to Sydney Image: Supplied Sumitra Vignaendra

The Jesuit Refugee Service and the Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum also welcomed and supported Neil in the Sydney section of his journey. Sutherland Shire Refugee Connection covered his accommodation and meals, and their members joined the final leg of the walk, as did the Sydney-based clients and volunteers from the Asylum Seekers Centre, who hosted a dinner for Neil on his second night in Sydney.

On 9 September, after Neil’s walk from Liverpool to Canterbury, he was reunited after 40 days with his Sugaa and their girls. Fabia Claridge, co-convenor of People Just Like Us, a refugee advocacy organisation based in Sydney, said: “We hope the massive community support shown for Neil and his achievements will inspire the Australian government to act to make sure these people are no longer left behind.”

On 10 September, dozens of supporters walked with him and his family on his final 6 kilometre stretch from Canterbury to Marrickville. “Sun in my eyes, wind in my face, joy in my heart as I cross the finish line,” Neil reflected. At the picnic that concluded this event, it was made public that four members of the family had been given permanent protection (Nive was granted citizenship when she turned 10).

The story is not over

In February Immigration Minister Andrew Giles granted access for 19,000 who held Temporary Protection Visas and Safe Haven; however, in excess of 10,000 refugees in Australia remain in limbo.

Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition has said that Labor recognises the flaws in the fast track system introduced under Morrison but has done nothing to rectify those flaws; despite policy, the fast-track system has not been abolished. Nor has Labor provided any systematic way to review the flawed decisions.

“Despite many approaches to the Minister, Andrew Giles is still unwilling to fix this glaring injustice,” said Rintoul, “Yet, ministerial intervention over the Biloela family and now Neil Para’s family has shown how simply it could be fixed.”

With great perversity, Australia punishes the people who are most in need – those who have escaped violence and horror in their birth countries, leaving families behind, both dead and alive. Australia’s mistreatment of refugees is not only at odds with human rights conventions that Australia has ratified, it is also at odds with the second verse of our own national anthem: “For those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share.”

To manage this glaring disjuncture between what we say about ourselves and what we do, we fabricate false narratives about refugees, demonising them as people asking for more than they deserve, which is in stark contrast to the truth. A common feature of refugees is their willingness to freely offer their time, services and kindness to help others in straightened circumstances. When one experiences perils, one appreciates the value of community.

Throughout his journey, Neil has highlighted the massive contribution of refugees to the Australian community, including their willingness to freely offer their time, services and kindness to help to others. He has also shown his respect for the first peoples of this land, their rights, and value of their cultures. The day after his arduous walk, when he had earned a much needed rest, he still made time to write the following to his Tamil compatriots in Australia: “My advocacy for refugees and asylum seekers will continue regardless of their country, language, religion, abilities, gender etc. … Please vote YES for Aboriginal people.”

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