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.
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,