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"Australians forget that these people themselves are fleeing fundamentalism. They don’t want to be fundamentalists."
Conversations
3 July 2014

Kon Karapanagiotidis has pathos

Interview by Miriam Kauppi
Photography by Jackson Eaton

Miriam Kauppi on Kon Karapanagiotidis

There is a quality about Kon Karapanagiotidis that is hard to pin down. In many ways it is more convincing than his list of achievements, degrees and awards—although that list is long and impressive. It is more infectious than his tireless dedication and relentless working life. It’s his humanity. And people feel it.

When he speaks, championing the compassionate, logical and fair treatment of people seeking asylum in Australia, it has the power to change the chemistry of a room. His instinctive humanity and the ease with which he connects is part of what makes him a formidable communicator and distiller of ideas. Kon cuts through the white noise of the media, politics and awkward, misinformed dinner-party conversation with straight-talking empathy mixed with the facts. It is also what makes him a light in the dark for the people he describes as, “Some of the most desperate and destitute in our community.”

After you have heard what he has to say, you feel not just inspired—it’s more complicated than that. You feel as though you have been hit in the face with a reality check, that you are a part of something now. His suggestions for change are so practical and win-win that the absurdity of not adopting them becomes embarrassingly obvious. But these qualities are only part of the reason that Kon is a leader in the area of asylum seeker and refugee advocacy, and why he has had such success with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC).

Instead of hardening his heart and causing him to retreat, Kon’s childhood experiences of racism and bullying inspired him to help others and to call out human rights abuses, injustice and inequality wherever he sees them.

When he founded the ASRC in 2011, Kon described it as a place that would “fight, without fear or favour, for people’s human rights.”

“I know it’s easy to feel shit about all this,” says Kon to a group of volunteers gathered for their regular morning briefing at the ASRC’s headquarters in West Melbourne, three days after the September 2013 election that saw Tony Abbot become Prime Minister of Australia. “But we have so much more to fight for now.” You can almost hear the cogs turning as he searches for a way to end the briefing on positive note. In fact, it’s easy to get the impression that the cogs never stop. On the inside of his right arm you get a glimpse of the tattoo that reads “pathos”—which means passion—written in the Greek alphabet. “You can’t just take the good,” and with his characteristic eye-crinkling smile, “None of it comes easy.”

This story originally ran in issue #38 of Dumbo Feather

MIRIAM KAUPPI: I’d like to talk about your childhood and how it influenced what you do today.

KON KARAPANAGIOTIDIS: I was born in Australia, in Albury Hospital. My parents both arrived from Greece in the 1960s. My dad in 1965 at about 28. My mum came in 1968, so she would have been just 20. I grew up in a country town called Mount Beauty in regional Victoria. We were one of only two Greek families in the whole town. Growing up, my experience was of not fitting in, of racism and of feeling excluded. It was common for me to be bullied and to have my name ridiculed and to be called a “wog” on a daily basis. At a young age I understood what it meant to be different. I was taught that difference was a dirty, bad thing. Difference was something that makes you suffer, causes you not to be liked. This was a little town where there were 1500 people.

This story originally ran in issue #38 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #38 of Dumbo Feather

Everyone else was Smith and Jones and I was Karapanagiotidis. It was a little hard to hide.

Despite that you describe yourself, even then, as being proudly Greek.

I remember at a young age, I must have been eight, the teacher told us, “Put up your hand if you’re Australian.” I was the only kid in the class that refused to. Then she said, “But of course you’re Australian.” I said, “No, I’m Greek.” “No, no, of course you’re Australian.” “No, I’m not!” At a very young age I had to defend my identity. Where I grew up, you had to defend where you came from. These experiences really did stay with me because I understood what it was like to experience racism first hand and how much you suffer because of it. It wounds you and hurts you as a child. It’s so damaging.

Did the racism continue into high school when your family moved to Melbourne?

High school was a shit time for me as well. It was another stage of my life full of bullying, of not fitting in, of drifting and looking for somewhere to belong. I started reading about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the civil rights movement and Gandhi. That really had a profound impact on me. I remember being 13, bullied, no friends, sitting in the library—it was all pretty pathetic—and reading this stuff [laughs].

From that time, I remember a book called Strength to Love, which is a book of Martin Luther King’s sermons. I’m an atheist; I’m not religious at all. This book is all about how it’s okay not to follow the drumbeat of conformity. It’s okay to take pride in disobeying laws that are unjust. It’s the same with Malcolm X: “A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.” These ideas really spoke to me at a time when I felt like I didn’t fit in or belong anywhere in the world. I found some solace and comfort in realising, I’m not alone and some of my heroes share the same sort of feelings and hopes that I do. Martin Luther King said, “I’ve decided to stick with love. Hatred is too big a burden to bear.” That was really profound for me because I was feeling so bitter and angry and alone in my childhood.

My parents were street smart. Words like, “resilience,” “courage” and “compassion” are words you would always hear from them.

What do you think you learned from your parents?

My parents worked extraordinarily hard all their lives. Before we moved to Melbourne when I was 12, my parents worked on a tobacco farm and they were exploited like crazy. My father would be up at three in the morning and worked until about 10 o’clock at night. And he’d get up extra early to try and spare my mum, who was raising two kids while working full time with him, doing back-breaking, physical work. Tobacco farms are the most labour intensive. Their sacrifice was just extraordinary.

The thing that always struck you about them was that they both had the grief that comes with the migrant experience of having lost your home. Even though they came by choice, they didn’t really. Both were forced by their parents to leave Greece because they wanted a better life for their kids. My grandparents on my father’s side were refugees at the hands of Turkey. They never really felt truly welcome or wanted in this country. And, on top of that, they made extraordinary sacrifices so that my sister and I would never go through that. My mother would go to her factory job in Melbourne and be humiliated and treated like a piece of machinery and she would say, “I do this because I never want people to treat you like this. I never want you to be in a factory where people can talk to you like you’re an animal.”

How did seeing all of this, and knowing it was all for you, affect you?

My parents were street smart. Words like, “resilience,” “courage” and “compassion” are words you would always hear from them. My father was a very unmaterialistic person. He couldn’t care less whether you had a million dollars or one dollar to your name, he would treat all people the same. Because he came from nothing, he appreciated the small little things in life; being able to do a hard day’s work, have a pot of beer and a cigarette at the end of the day. And that had an impact on me. It taught me that the material world is bullshit. The material world is meaningless. What my sister and I learned from a young age is that you can’t just live for yourself. We couldn’t allow their sacrifices to be for nothing.

We are lucky because the work that we do will never be “real work” compared to working in shit factories and farms. We’ve got to honour that.

Was education part of them wanting a better life for you?

Oh yeah. Education was always critical because they didn’t have it. Education is power. When you work with groups of people who are being fucked over, when you’ve got a degree—those pieces of paper—it buys you a social and political capital that forces people to engage with you. There’s power in education.

You’ve done a lot of study. As well as being a social worker, a lawyer and a teacher you are currently on a scholarship doing an MBA at a very prestigious business school.

Education allows you to occupy spaces from which you can be a champion for people. So that’s the value, that’s what’s always driven me. But also, education was so precious to my family, and my parents never got a chance to have it. My dad was from the country, as was my mother. They both came from tiny villages in Greece. They were so poor. My father left school at nine because he had to raise a dowry for his three sisters to get married. One of the saddest memories I have is of my father— who passed away many years ago now—telling me the story of being pulled out of school. His teacher begged his parents not to take him out, saying, “Leo can be a doctor, a lawyer, he can be anything.” My mother had to leave school at 12 to work in the fields as well.

I’m doing my sixth degree now. I started with a behavioural science degree then did my social work degree. Then I did my law degree. And then I did a masters of education and training, a masters in international development, and now I’m doing a senior executive MBA at the Melbourne Business School.

From 18 to 28 I learned how to do the work that I do now. I spent those 10 years doing volunteer work. Outside of my mum and dad and sister—who loved me deeply—I felt so unloved in this world. I wanted to take all the hurt and pain of my childhood and say, Okay, if no one will give me that love, I need to at least find a way to give it back to the world. I’ve got to do something good with this, because it’s going to kill me otherwise. It was poisoning me. It was going to break me.

Did you always know that you wanted to be in a job that helped people?

Yeah. I was 18 and my first volunteer job was in a homeless drop-in centre. I found more compassion and kindness in a drop-in centre full of homeless men who had lost everything than I ever had with a bunch of middle-class kids at school or at university. And I was like, Ah. I’m home now. This is where I belong. These are my people. This is my community.

Is that how you started doing volunteer work?

Over that decade I just immersed myself in volunteer work, doing anything I could. And it gave me purpose, it gave me a sense of hope. I did a range of random things. I was so curious. I thought, I want to learn everything. I want to be in every community. I volunteered at about 23 organisations over the decade, and often at about at 12 different places at the same time.

Wow.

I got to spend my Friday nights out on the streets of St Kilda until two in the morning, working with the Prostitutes Collective of Victoria doing outreach work with sex workers. I’d spend my Sundays playing with kids at the Children’s Hospital, I’d spend my Wednesday nights on the ground floor of this building, the ASRC headquarters, when it used to be Crisis Line, doing telephone counselling, I ran support groups for male survivors of sexual assault, I worked at a legal centre. That was how it started for me. Those 10 years of working across every possible area I could taught me what caring and compassion looked like, and where I did and did not want to work.

How did you convert all of that energy and knowledge into the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC)?

In 1997, at 27, I had set up my own little mental-health organisation. It provided free advocacy and counselling to people who were in a mental-health institution. I was friends with a nun who worked at the Red Cross, called Sister Bernadette. She sent a young asylum seeker to me, a Turkish man who had been tortured. She said, “Look, I know you’re doing some free counselling. Could you see this young man?” And so I worked with this man who had been tortured and was forced to flee his country. Then she sent me another and another. And I started learning that asylum seekers in Melbourne were going without a basic safety net. Many were with no right to work, no income, no supports. That was when I started doing some work with asylum seekers. My interest in it dated back further, but my first real contact with asylum seekers was then. And so I started talking to some wonderful friends at the Red Cross and at Hotham Mission and we started looking at the fact that there was nowhere in the inner city where people could just come and get access to food.

And this was the beginning of the ASRC?

I was teaching community work to a group of 40 TAFE students who were learning to be welfare workers. I said to the group, “Right, we’ve got eight weeks together. As a class project you’ve got to go out and find a six-week, real-life placement in the community so that you can experience community work.” They came back to me the next week and said, “We can’t find anything, no one will take us on, it’s too difficult for such a short period of time.”

Here were a mixed group of students; single mothers, women who had come back to school in their late thirties and forties, refugees. And they were so hungry to learn. They were so keen to better themselves. They were the kind of young people that many think don’t have any real future. And they were struggling to find something to do. At that time my dear friend Pablo set up his Grassland Grocery on Nicholson Street in Footscray back in 1997 or 1998, as a not-for-profit organic grocery store, where all profits went to helping social projects get off the ground. And he said we could use it. So I proposed to my students, “Why don’t we set up our own organisation as our class project? Why don’t we set up a food bank for people who are asylum seekers?” They thought I was taking the piss! But I was like: “Well, why can’t we? I was just trying to say to them,

‘You can change the world. You don’t need a piece of paper. You can make a difference now.’

I broke my students up into five working groups. One group was to paint the shop- front, another was to build the shelves. Another to go out and beg for donations of food, another group was to organise a street party. You need a party! Then, eight weeks after that first conversation, on June 8 2001, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre was born. After the semester maybe a quarter of the students kept with it. Six months down the track there was probably a handful left.

So the ASRC started with just a food bank for local asylum seekers in the community?

Initially, our supplies of food would last just an hour or two. I was teaching four days a week. So we would open just a couple of days a week; on my day off, in the evenings, on the weekend. And with whatever money came in I’d drive around with my mum and we would go looking for specials. We’d go to Not Quite Right or wherever to buy whatever food we could with whatever money we had. But the shelves would be empty so fast.

How many people were coming to you daily, weekly…?

Even back then, in a given week, probably a couple of hundred people would come in seeking food. And we just kept running out. Then we had the first volunteer night and a handful of people came. Then the Tampa tragedy happened two months later. And after that, suddenly, an issue that was unknown to most of the Australian public went bang. People just poured in. The number of volunteers went from five to 30 to 50 to 100. People were like, I’ve got to do something. I can’t just keep screaming at the television. People just kept dropping off food, and asking, “How do I help?” We started by providing a food bank for asylum seekers in the community who couldn’t work or access welfare. Then people turned up saying, “I teach English, can I help?” and we said, “Okay, let’s start an English program.” We noticed parents turning up with sick children because no hospital would treat them without Medicare. Or they didn’t have money to pay for simple medications such as Ventolin. So we thought, Bugger this, we’re going to start the first health centre for asylum seekers in Victoria.

Was there a bigger plan at that stage?

When I started the centre the idea was: turn no asylum seeker in need away, take no Federal Government funding so that we remain independent, simply respond to the human being in front of you. We just kept growing week by week. I remember one week we were down to our last $7000. I thought, God, we’re about to close our doors here! We just had to scrap and beg and, you know, the old saying: “closed mouths do not get fed.” So for me it was always about beg, beg, beg, I don’t care. I’ve let go of ego. Those early years were tough. I was working, and on top of that I was probably volunteering another 40 hours a week there. But then, just by luck, a month later, we got our first philanthropic grant from the Myer Foundation to pay for a CEO. So in April of 2002 I ended up being able to do it for a living. So we kept adding services because the need got greater and greater. So that’s how the health centre started, and that’s how the legal service and counselling started.

Did you have any idea then that the centre would turn out to be the success it is today? Or the size?

In 2004 we pretty much had the template that is the centre now. We had 23 different programs—but nowhere near the standard or quality or level of what we do now. We just kept growing and growing organically. I had no idea how to run an organisation. Quite seriously. I’d had a go at running my own little mental-health service, but I had no idea. I just learnt as I went.

When I started, people mocked me. They thought, This just can’t work, you can’t run an organisation that doesn’t take Federal Government funding. But I refused it because I thought, We are going to be independent so we can advocate without fear or favour.

I remember making two critical decisions about three years in, when we were advocating against temporary protection visas and mandatory detention. One: we can’t just provide welfare, we need to provide employment and empowerment. And two: we need to advocate. Otherwise you’re putting a bandaid on a gaping wound.

My definition of us succeeding is, when a person seeks asylum in this country they are given the opportunity, equal to any one else, to participate and succeed and to fulfil their potential.

I’ve also heard you talk before about “changing the conversation” around the issue of asylum seekers.

Over the 12 years we’ve been around we’ve provided millions of hours of free assistance worth hundreds of millions of dollars. We’ve saved the lives of thousands of people, we’ve grown to almost 900 volunteers and almost four dozen paid staff. And all that’s wonderful. But when I look at us, 12 years down the track, I still feel like we’re failing. Because at the end of the day, what we need is to move people out of poverty. Otherwise you’re just going to end up welfare warehousing people. It’s about: How do we change the conversation? How do we get the country as a whole to not see people who are seeking asylum as a problem but as an opportunity? As an obligation, not as a risk? And how do we create humane government policies? My definition of us succeeding is, when a person seeks asylum in this country they are given the opportunity, equal to any one else, to participate and succeed and to fulfil their potential. And that they can do so in a community that has informed and compassionate attitudes and that sees them as people, and in a political ecosystem that is lawful and fair. I don’t see it as a political issue. It’s a humanitarian issue.

How do you explain what’s happening in Australia now regarding asylum seekers? Why has it become such a big political issue as opposed to a humanitarian issue, as you say?

Racism is part of it. While I don’t believe most Australians are racist, probably one-third of them are. We’re a country that fears difference and we’re a country that still—despite the fact that multiculturalism is the reason we’re a successful country, and that we’re a nation built by boat people and indigenous people—fears “the other.” We’re obsessed. Immigration is a challenging issue across the globe, but Australia is quite unique in its fear of refugees. We have made the refugees the enemy and those persecuting them the heroes.

Nothing wins you an election and power like scapegoating powerless defenceless people who have no social, economic and political capital. Demonising them, dehumanising them, so that the average Australian looks at them and thinks, I have nothing in common with you. I cannot relate to you. You are just a problem and a burden that I need to be protected from. Thus, I cannot feel for you.

And the role of Islamaphobia in all of this? Is that part of it too, in your opinion?

That’s a big part of it.

Australians forget that these people themselves are fleeing fundamentalism. They don’t want to be fundamentalists.

And fundamentalists can be of any faith. Fundamentalism in Christianity has killed tens of millions of people. My favourite statistic is that an American is more likely to be killed by furniture than by an act of terrorism [laughs].

We have two major political parties that pander to xenophobia and fear and uncertainty, who create this myth that we are under siege and have a crisis. Rather, our crisis is a lack of leadership. You have a media that feeds a racist rhetoric, one of paranoia, of being overwhelmed by boats, that reports that our borders are at risk when really we have the toughest borders in the world. Then, you have a society in which there is not just racism but that is also being genuinely misinformed. That is having its mind poisoned by our leaders who use terms such as “queue jumpers” when there is no queue, calling asylum seekers “illegals” when they are not illegal, telling us they are here to threaten our way of life, that we’re being swamped when we’re not.

The number of people that we have received for all of 2013 is what Turkey receives in 72 hours from Syria. We are not under siege. Australia is being constantly told that we are doing it tough when we are the most prosperous, democratic country on earth. That’s not to say there isn’t a big, important group of people who are suffering disadvantage and homelessness, who are indigenous. But to position asylum seekers as the cause of problems in Australia is mad.

So is that the best place to start with changing the conversation? How do you even begin approaching it?

Now remember, while we are a minority—that is people who are compassionate and supportive of refugees— that minority’s still a minority of millions. Despite all the misinformation, I still believe that one-third of
this country wants the compassionate and fair treatment of refugees and people seeking asylum. So our big challenge is, how do we harness the full potential of those millions of people?

We’re never going to get to a third of the population who are dyed-in-the-wool racist. You’re just not going to get to them. And then another third are the ones who are being told to be afraid. They have been told these people are a risk or a burden or a potential terrorist. How do we reach that other third? I think we need to have an honest conversation about racism, but also need to re-author this conversation. Change the narrative. Part of that is about re-humanising people who are seeking asylum. And I think part of that is representing it as a humanitarian issue. We need to link the conversation about asylum seekers to a broader conversation around immigration and its benefits.

How do we think differently and break out of the rhetoric cycle?

We’re an ageing population that is going to become economically
un-competitive if we do not have significant increases in immigration. People are seeking asylum. Many of those people are people with skills. Seven out of 10 are people with skills that this country actually needs right now.

We could link our humanitarian obligations with helping revive our regional and rural economies, our manufacturing industries.

If we keep outsourcing everything, we are going to become the dodo of the economic world when our natural resources are finally extinguished. What does Australia have then? So there is a real opportunity for us to reframe this conversation and say, It’s in our economic interest. One: we have a legal obligation as a signatory to the refugee convention, and so it is illegal for us to send people offshore and to lock them up indefinitely. Two: we have a moral obligation. If that were me in that situation, I would try to save the lives of my children by fleeing persecution, so we should offer them protection because it’s the moral, decent, humane thing to do. And three: the economic path. We can use this in a way that is sustainable and prosperous for our country. It is beneficial. We can see this as an entrepreneurial opportunity. We have a motivated, skilled labour force that this country needs. We can do the moral and legal thing and economically benefit from it. It’s a win, win, win.

The model we’ve got now is harming tens of thousands of people. It’s building an underclass that we’ll pay for in decades to come and it’s squandering billions of dollars that could be spent on people who want to be part of this country, who are grateful for being saved by this country, who want to contribute to this country. So we can either go down the continued pathway of fear, racism and indifference and waste a generation and build an underclass, or we can act with compassion, entrepreneurship and basic human decency. We can actually embed people who are seeking asylum, refugees—like we have successfully, over 700,000 in the last century—and make them an asset to this country.

Is it at its worst now? Is this as bad as it’s ever been for asylum seekers and refugees in Australia?

Yes and no. I’d say it’s worse now than under Howard, Rudd and Gillard. But there is extraordinary support in the community. And while it is fragmented, it is the most powerful and engaged that it’s ever been. And for our movement, like any human rights movement, at a time like this we could feel sorry for ourselves and lose hope, or we can get some perspective and go, Times like this are when having vision and purpose and passion are the most important, and at times like this you can’t afford to be cowardly or lose hope. We see this as an opportunity to create the greatest ever, engaged, grassroots movement for changing this country. And that’s what I saw with John Howard. I credit John Howard’s policies with the rise of the ASRC. Perversely, the worse things become, the stronger we become as an organisation.

How do we get there? I mean, people must ask you all the time, “What can I do?”.

The most important thing is for people to participate and advocate, or donate their time, their energy, their resources. Get out there and share the facts. Bust the myths. Talk about it to people who rarely hear things outside of the mainstream media. Politicians reflect the sentiment of the public. So that requires us as a community to rally and say, We don’t want this anymore. We want something better than this. In the next three years I want to engage with young people—that next generation of voters from 15 to 18. How do we get to every high school in Australia between now and next election so that we can equip those kids with the facts and with genuine alternatives? How do we work with multi-ethnic and multi-faith communities? How do we get businesses to see people who are seeking asylum as an asset and something our economy and community needs, so they become something that is indispensable? How do we humanise people through education?

You’ve got to work at every level, but it starts at the kitchen table. What are parents telling their kids? What are people teaching their friends and family? So many of our attitudes are shaped at the kitchen table. And it really requires people willing to say, “No, that’s not true, actually, these are the facts,” or, “Let’s have a conversation. Let’s look at this another way. What are you afraid of?”.

The same way that your politics were taught to you by your parents—via their attitudes and by their example. At home, at the kitchen table…

Politics is lived in that way. Their suffering and those experiences they had taught me the importance of resilience. That you can’t lose hope. You have to imagine a better society and a better world. Too many people are happy to criticise what’s wrong and to say, “Tony Abbot is terrible.” All I’m interested in is: what are you doing to change things for the better? What are you doing to build a better alternative to the one that we have now?

I guess people need to hear that. They need to feel empowered. They need to think they can make a difference.

Of course they can. That’s the crazy thing. People are extraordinary and profoundly powerful. Take the ASRC for example. Here is an organisation, run without any federal funding, run almost entirely by volunteers. It’s outspoken and fearless in what it stands for, and 12 years later is still standing strong. Of course we’re powerful! Our labour, our energy, our time, our voice, our passion, our heart has the ability to imagine a whole other world. Every act of compassion, every act of defiance against injustice, every act of standing for what is right and what is fair changes the world. Of course it does. Systems are just human beings. We talk about “the system.”

The system is just a group of individuals on any given day making a decision to make the world a certain way. It’s fragile. And it can be shifted and it can be beaten, it can be reshaped.

You think about it: every movement in this country, from the right to vote for indigenous people to the right to vote for women, or internationally: the end of apartheid or segregation. They all started with someone saying, “enough!”.

Is there a downside to all of this? What does it cost you to be a representation of hope to so many people?

I’ve got to keep perspective and think, What I do is possible because of thousands of people that help me do it. I don’t really have any great struggle. Does work wear me out? Yeah. Does it physically and emotionally wear me down? Of course. Does it take a toll on my wellbeing? Of course it does. But on the flipside, I’m lucky to have what I have. It’s extraordinary that I have the chance to spend my life doing what I love. How precious it is that I have a choice, unlike my parents did. You’ve got to take it as one package. You can’t just take the good. People say to me, “You’re so lucky. You get to do what you love.” And it’s like, my parents spent their lives sacrificing so my sister and I could do what we wanted. And then I spent the last 22 years doing what I love, but in the community. None of this comes without a lot of hard work and a lot of passion and an unwavering belief in what you’re doing. And none of it comes easy. Anything really precious and beautiful in life requires all of you to be committed to it.

Miriam Kauppi

Miriam Kauppi is a subeditor, writer and editor based in Melbourne, Australia.

Photography by Jackson Eaton

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