A Melbourne refuge for asylum seekers is a thriving concern. But its founder Kon Karapanagiotidis wishes it weren’t so.
KON Karapanagiotidis has a lot on his mind. He rubs his round face and grey-flecked hair, shakes his head and the words pour out. “I very much like to prove people wrong,” says the founder and chief executive of Melbourne’s Asylum Seekers Resource Centre.
Karapanagiotidis, 34, is a pin-up for kindness and compassion, but he is not soft. You wouldn’t bank on breaking his will.
But after another long day recently, the sheer relentlessness of his work almost did.
”I had one of those nights last Wednesday, where I didn’t finish work until 11.30 at night and I’m walking home with my sister and feeling really worn out and going this is … soul-crushing because there’s this endless need and suffering,” he recalls.
”We hail a cab because we need a drink and the guy who picks me up had been an asylum seeker that I’d helped four years earlier. And as I was having this momentary crisis, he’s sitting there going . . . without your help I don’t know where me and my family would have been . . . We can never thank you enough for what you’ve done for us.”
When they got to the pub, the cabbie refused to accept any money. It’s moments like that that keep Karapanagiotidis going.
When we meet it’s at the resource centre’s new offices in West Melbourne. The walls are brightly coloured, the passages well worn. Karapanagiotidis takes the lead to a nook between a bookshelf and a filing cabinet. He says it’s the only place he won’t be disturbed, but as he speaks he is intercepted by a volunteer and bustles off to help for a minute.
The resource centre is a charity set up to help asylum seekers – people who come to Australia claiming to be refugees. It’s a large operation offering more than 20 services, including a food bank, legal assistance, health care and English classes. “We have 700 volunteers and 21 (paid) staff,” Karapanagiotidis says.
The centre gets 94 per cent of its funding from donations and last year provided $14.27 million-worth of help to people seeking asylum. Six years ago, it started as little more than a challenge to a bunch of welfare studies students.
In 2001, Karapanagiotidis, a lawyer and social worker, was teaching diploma students. “I said to my students, what do you think about setting up a food bank as a class project, for people seeking asylum? Eight weeks from the day I proposed it to them, the ASRC was born.”
For the first nine months, Karapanagiotidis was teaching four days a week and working unpaid at the centre on “the spare day and the weekend and every night of the week”. It took its toll on more than his time. “I ended up getting the sack for starting up the centre. The management of the university was very displeased that I would involve the university in such a politically controversial issue,” he says.
He grins as he explains that it wasn’t the first time he has lost a job. “Every time I get sacked it’s always an issue of principle and I have no regrets.”
The son of Greek immigrants, Karapanagiotidis’ experience of exclusion and racism as a child built a steely desire to help people at the margins of society. “I grew up in a little country town . . . in a poor working-class family.” As one of only two Greek families in Mount Beauty, he remembers they “copped a lot of racism”.
When he was 12, the family moved to Thornbury, but not much changed. “By the time I reached 18, I had within me a very strong sense of who I was . . . of being an outsider, always having an allegiance and empathy with people who don’t fit in. My parents sacrificed everything, their entire happiness, so that my sister and I could have a better life. And for me part of it is just honouring that sacrifice, let me count for something.”
Maybe that sense of purpose is why Karapanagiotidis has such contempt for apathy. “There’s a lot of lovely young people who come to this centre, but if I was to say who’s been the backbone of the organisation, it’s not the kids. You know, they’re the most cynical and disillusioned.”
Melbourne author Arnold Zable speaks highly of Karapanagiotidis’ ability to motivate. “I think he’s a person that draws people to him.”
The two have often spoken together at refugee events and fund-raisers and Zable admires the work of the resource centre. “He knows how to fulfil the practical needs of asylum seekers as well as their emotional and spiritual needs,” he says.
Karapanagiotidis swears regularly. It jars at first, seemingly at odds with his appearance. He doesn’t hold back when it comes to the Government, racism, injustice and apathy. “You go through endless examples of what people are suffering. You sit there and go this is f—ing unconscionable, this is intolerable.”
Perversely though, the Howard Government’s stringent policy on asylum seekers is what brought about the exponential growth of the centre. “The worse our Government becomes and the more hardline it becomes, the more and more the donations, the volunteers, the support.”
The centre’s campaign co-ordinator, Pamela Curr, says Karapanagiotidis is very strategic. “He can be confrontational when it needs it and this issue frequently does,” she says. “He also faces people in the rawest of their emotional states and he has an enormous capacity to comfort and reach out to someone in need.”
In a perfect world, Karapanagiotidis says the organisation would not exist. “The ultimate dream is to close our doors, that we’re not needed here.”
In the early days, when he was getting it off the ground, Karapanagiotidis worked close to 80 or 90 hours a week. Finally the realisation struck, “I was so emotionally exhausted . . . My work is my entire life, it’s not making me happy.”
Green paint flecks his hands and forearms, the legacy of a weekend spent painting the offices (they moved from another site in West Melbourne, but it all started in Footscray), but Karapanagiotidis says he is not working so much these days.
“I have a really good balance, I actually do. This work does take a personal toll . . . but I have a really good friends network and I do lots of stuff myself. I do massage, I cook, I started yoga, I’m about to do acting, I paint, I’m doing salsa at the moment, a sculpture course.”
While his social life is more balanced, work at the centre can still be intense. “Any given week it is full-on. Somebody’s on a hunger strike in detention, somebody’s trying to kill themselves, somebody’s turned up homeless, a family’s going hungry, someone’s turning up who’s 70 years old with cancer who’s got no Medicare.”
While the likes of the cab incident provide solace, Karapanagiotidis never feels content. “If other people’s suffering doesn’t affect you . . . then something’s seriously wrong. It doesn’t mean you won’t find happiness and enjoy your life, but you can’t find peace in this world. You can’t, you don’t, you’re not meant to.”
The interview ends as it started, with a volunteer coming in looking for help. Karapanagiotidis heads off to solve the latest problem.
“I’m just doing what anyone should do really, which is give a shit about other people and do something about it,” he says.
‘Australia is my shelter now’
Tesfalem Kidane was 31 when he arrived in Melbourne from Ethiopia. This is his story.
I AM from Ethiopia. I arrived here in 2003. We were invited here to perform music and after I came some things changed with my life over there and I am not secure if I go back.
People showed me the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre and I told them everything and they started to help me immediately. That was really, really helpful because it is hard when you don’t have anybody and you are not at home and don’t speak the language.
Still, even with their help, I had some difficulties, a lot of depression, a lot of stress. Men, we don’t cry usually, you know, but I cried a lot. Kon, he used to just take me into his office and he said, “All right, just don’t give up.” I absolutely forgot everything when I was with him.
Now just last year in August I was granted permanent residency, but before that I used to be in limbo. After I was granted, everyone was really happy. We had a big party in Footscray, at one of the African restaurants, to thank them all for helping me.
I play keyboard and sing as well. I play Ethiopian music and I’ve got a lot of plans now just to mix it up with the Western style. I hope to go to university to study music.
I used to drive a taxi so it helped me to improve my English. Still I’ve got some friends from the taxi, from passengers who became my friends. I am looking for a courier job, but unfortunately I have been unlucky. I’ve got the knowledge, which is I know the town now very well. I will keep trying.
Everyone is just really friendly, especially in Melbourne. I love living here (in Kensington with another asylum seeker) because it is very multicultural. I’m starting to understand footy. I am a Richmond supporter; I’ve got my Tiger scarf.
Home is home, where you were born. I’ve got family over there and one day I am wishing to be back home to see them. People, if they don’t have problems, they won’t leave their home at all, that is my belief.
A human being needs a shelter. Australia is my shelter now, just to protect myself from my fear. I am really, really happy, except I can’t get a job.
My name is two words: “tesfa” means hope and “alem” means the world. So I am not going to give up. I have always got hope, even just in my name.
First published in The Age