Neil Para named as one of Australia's best neighbours

NEIGHBOURLY: Neil Para has been named as one of Australia's best neighbours. Photo: Adam Trafford
NEIGHBOURLY: Neil Para has been named as one of Australia's best neighbours. Photo: Adam Trafford

Neil Para spends his days giving back to the community and now he's been named one of Australia's best neighbours.

Nextdoor Australia - an online neighbourhood network which helps communities to establish trusted connections - launched its second annual 'Celebrate Your Neighbour' day competition in Australia in celebration of Neighbour Day in late March, encouraging its members to nominate people in their community whose neighbourly kindness exceeds expectations.

Ballarat's Caitlin Davis, who nominated Mr Para and admits to being taken aback after learning his story.

"Even though he is a refugee with no citizenship and he is not awarded anything from the Australian government, he has done nothing but serve his local community by consistently volunteering in any kind of community project."

These projects range from involvement with the State Emergency Service (SES) to establishing community groups, volunteering with schools, with landscaping projects, senior services, book clubs, restoration and Clean Up Australia Day.

"The list is absolutely endless," Ms Davis said. "He's not allowed to work so he doesn't get paid anything but it is his relentless and selfless acts of kindness and service to the community that have just been completely outstanding."

Everyone that meets him is just inspired.

Caitlin Davis

"He makes you feel a little bit guilty for not doing enough because it's clear that he does so much for other people. He puts everyone else first, and that is despite living in the country for seven years without citizenship."

Mr Para and Ms Davis met as he was looking for a president for the Committee for Ballarat North, which he had only recently founded on Nextdoor. Ms Davis is now the president.

In creating the committee, Mr Para wanted to form a group to represent the community, so its needs could be discussed and communicated to the various levels of government.

For Mr Para, communication in all its forms is of the utmost importance.

When he first moved to Ballarat North, he typed up a note introducing his family, printed out numerous copies and delivered one to each letterbox in his street.

As a result, his family enjoyed a cup of tea with many of his friendly neighbours. He now knows when a neighbour leaves and when to welcome the new neighbour who moves in, and always makes an effort to wave or spark up a conversation when he sees somebody on the street.

"You need to talk to neighbours otherwise you don't know who they are or how they are. Talk to them, say hello and if you can, share a cup of tea with them. That's how you become a good neighbour," he said.

These are values he is trying to instill in his children, too.

While he is modest about being nominated, and being one of the winners of the award, he is also very grateful.

"I don't know if I deserve it because there are so many people around us who deserve this kind of recognition because they do a lot of things with the community. Around here I see a lot of people helping each other, my neighbours helping each other.

"Everyone I can see is doing a lot of things for the community. So they are good neighbours and they all deserve a neighbour day award."

Mr Para and his wife Suganthini, best known as Sugaa, and their three children - Nivash, Kartie and Nive - are well-loved members of the Ballarat community.

The Tamil family, including a heavily pregnant Sugaa, desperately fled the discrimination and violence their people were experiencing at the hands of the government during the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2012.

The family worry as they have not been granted citizenship. Photo: Kate Healy

The family worry as they have not been granted citizenship. Photo: Kate Healy

Their intense fear led them to board a boat, bound for Australia.

Upon arrival they were taken into detention, where they lived for several months, before being awarded visas in September 2013. These visas allowed them to live in the community, to work and to study.

A requirement of their visa was for them to choose a regional town to call home. The family chose Ballarat, and began to settle in.

But just months afterwards, in February 2014, their visas and the rights that accompanies them were stripped. Ever since, the family has been living not only with uncertainty and fear of deportation, but without the means to support themselves or subsidised medical care.

The family has tried every avenue to obtain visas to secure protection from Australia, though they have hit a dead end at every turn.

The family is supported emotionally and financially by the Ballarat community.

When their parents informed them of their difficulties in securing protection from the government, the girls penned letters to the prime minister. Photo: Kate Healy

When their parents informed them of their difficulties in securing protection from the government, the girls penned letters to the prime minister. Photo: Kate Healy

As he is unable to work, Mr Para spends all of his time volunteering. While it began as a way to stay busy and to repay the kindness of the community, it is now "in his blood".

A hairdresser back in Sri Lanka, if his family is granted permanent residency or citizenship, he would like to apply to join Victoria Police.

If that is not successful, he would like to establish his own small business as a photographer, website or graphic designer.

Even if I get a visa or citizenship, and if I am busy working, I will always add in time to do volunteer work.

Neil Para

"Even if I get a visa or citizenship, and if I am busy working, I will always add in time to do volunteer work," he said.

His favourite place to volunteer is the SES and if he does secure the right to work here, he intends to continue volunteering with the organisation while he is fit and healthy.

In the past he has also received the Catherine King Award for Community Service, for his volunteer work at Black Hill Primary School.

Meanwhile, his wife, Sugaa, volunteers at an aged care facility and with Visit Ballarat.

Mr Para and his family have still not received a definitive answer from the government about their visa status.

"I just want to integrate. I just want to create a great future for the kids so I am being a model for my family," he said.

Neil Para. Photo: Adam Trafford

Neil Para. Photo: Adam Trafford

Mr Para wants the government to give his family the green light to remain in Australia, which they already feel is their home, so that they can work and give back more to the community they love so much.

Ms Davis said that despite the ongoing ambiguity regarding the family's status, the fact that Mr Para continued to volunteer was remarkable.

"That speaks highly of his character, that despite everything he's been through and his current position, that he still has a very optimistic outlook on life."

That speaks highly of his character, that despite everything he's been through and his current position, that he still has a very optimistic outlook on life.

Caitlin Davis

Nextdoor's Jennie Sager said celebrating Neighbour Day was a way to give thanks to the quiet achievers who perform random acts of kindness each year.

She said there were hundreds of nominations for neighbours who had helped out others, particularly through the bushfire crisis as well as during COVID-19, so it had been difficult to choose the winners.

As a prize for winning the award, he will be given $100. This he is giving to the Committee for Ballarat North.