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Leading with love: asylum seeker advocate named Melburnian of the Year

12 November 2023

Be part of building a more compassionate Australia, where everyone has a seat at the table, inspired by Melburnian of the Year Kon Karapanagiotidis OAM.

From a Greek-Australian child experiencing racism in a country town to CEO and founder of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Kon has turned trauma into action that positively impacts countless lives.

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As a human rights lawyer, social worker, Children’s Ground board member, philanthropist, masseur, and cooking enthusiast, Kon is both a passionate advocate for people in need and a voracious learner.

“Education is power – the power to do good, and the power to influence and change things for the better. Thanks to my parents’ legacy, I get to live this dream. I can’t waste that opportunity,” Kon said.

Kon and his mother Sia celebrate his law degree

Family values

Kon’s grandparents came to Australia as refugees, and his parents made great sacrifices for their children.

His dad spent humiliating and gruelling years working on a tobacco farm to support the family, and his mum never fulfilled her dream of being a maths teacher. Kon was the first in his family to complete high school.

Kon and his sister, Her Honour Nola Karapanagiotidis – who was the first Greek-Australian woman to be appointed a judge in the County Court of Victoria – remain ever grateful for these sacrifices, and their family’s strong Greek values.

Kon as a child, with his family

“The Greek term ‘philoxenia’ means to welcome the stranger, or to love the stranger. ‘Philotimo’, too, means being a servant to love. These values are like breathing for Greeks,” Kon said.

“Society so often forgets it, but everyone deserves to be seen and valued. After all, with a change of the wind we could be the ones in search of safety and welcome.”

A Seat At My Table: Philoxenia

Kon’s strong family values have made their way into the title of his Greek cookbook. Created with his mother Sia, A Seat At My Table: Philoxenia includes 100 vegan and vegetarian recipes. Proceeds have raised more than $200,000 for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

Kon and Sia cooking for a crowd

The power of compassion

Motivated by generational tenacity and a conscious decision to “lead with love”, Kon’s journey has seen him support the most vulnerable people in our communities.

Among Kon’s many roles, he has worked the midnight shift on a crisis line, run support groups for male survivors of incest, promoted safety for sex workers on the streets of St Kilda, and provided massage clinics for men experiencing homelessness.

“I was working with men sleeping rough – tough guys who’d been in prison – and they’d be like little lambs. They told me it was the first time they’d been touched without being harmed. We don’t often think about that, with men,” Kon said.

“People we turn our backs on have trauma at the heart of their journey. That’s the common thread. Whether it be displacement, abuse, serious health issues, bereavement or family breakdown, trauma is the universal story. Intergenerational trauma, in particular, places people at the margins.

“Everyone is worthy – there’s no such thing as a broken person. Most Australians are just a step away from being on the streets, so we need to show each other compassion.”

A charity begins

At 28, Kon founded the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre with TAFE students he was teaching to become welfare workers. Their first task was to provide meals for refugees who couldn’t find food in Melbourne.

“The TAFE students were migrants, refugees and lots of Australian mums in their 40s and 50s returning to studies – they were people about whom the world had low expectations,” Kon said.

“This project taught them that they could make a difference and change the world for the better – all you need is the intention, passion and ideals to do so. There’s not much more to it than that.”

The eight-week TAFE project became a charity, and thousands of people began to volunteer and donate in the wake of the Tampa affair. At its peak, meetings of 1400 people were held at Melbourne Town Hall, hosted by former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.

Melburnians who came along told Kon they were feeling helpless, and ashamed to be Australian. They brought with them cash donations, boxes of veggies they’d grown, and blankets they’d knitted.

Astonishing impact

Twenty-two years later, the non-profit has made a huge impact – supporting 30,000 people in need, raising a quarter of a billion dollars and saving thousands of lives. This success was based on three core principles:

“I decided that the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre would never take money from the Australian Government, that we would be outspoken and fearless, and that we would never turn anyone away in need,” Kon said.

Today, 200 staff members and 1000 volunteers deliver English classes, a full-scale legal service, an incubator for refugee-led businesses, two social-enterprise cafes, numerous programs in health, education, housing, meals, financial aid and women’s empowerment, and much more.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre has also worked tirelessly to support and evacuate refugees from Nauru – work that continues in Papua New Guinea. And the organisation is training the next generation of advocates as Australia’s largest investor in refugee leadership.

“We are Australia’s most influential and effective refugee organisation when it comes to creating change – we have relationships in parliament with the entire crossbench, and members of the coalition,” Kon said.

“The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre is trusted because we don’t endorse any political party and we are not aligned to any faith. We are just seeking to create positive change.”

Kon speaking at an Asylum Seeker Resource Centre event

Walking together for unity

After the defeat of the Voice referendum, a devastated Kon reflected on the parallels between First Nations people and refugees – two groups with vastly different journeys, both seeking to be safe, free and heard.

“First Nations people are so welcoming to asylum seekers – they are unwaveringly kind and accepting. I’ve never seen them turn their backs on refugees, who have lost everything,” Kon said.

“Perhaps it is because they know what it is like to feel like refugees in their own country.

“We must stand with First Nations leaders, because they have the solutions. We must listen, learn, and walk the journey as allies. We need treaty and truth now, as well as a Voice.”

Kon believes that the majority of Australians are compassionate people who want First Nations people to be recognised, and he takes heart in the strong “yes” votes among young people and migrant communities.

He is calling for leadership that dispels disinformation, promotes unity and starts a journey of healing.

“Facts and figures don’t work when others are pushing fear, racism and division. So we need to turn to our shared values. We must respond with what matters to everyone – love, community and family. This is our common bond.”

How to make an impact in your neighbourhood

For people seeking to follow in Kon’s change-making footsteps, he has some encouraging advice:

“Be proud of where you come from, work hard, remain humble and make a difference. Everything you build, you build through your own hard work,” Kon said.

“There is a long way to go, and the work is ahead of us, but we cannot despair. Despair is not a strategy. We’ve got to come back and be more prepared, and more compassionate.”

Kon believes everyone should have “a seat at the table”

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre website offers a wealth of information about how to support refugees, from volunteering to booking catering with social impact. To learn more, visit asrc.org.au

About the Melbourne Awards

The Melbourne Awards are the City of Melbourne’s highest accolade, recognising the people and organisations who make a significant impact on community life.

“I’m surprised, humbled and very grateful to be recognised in the Melbourne Awards,” Kon said.

To read about this year’s inaugural Young Melburnian of the Year, actor and transgender advocate Georgie Stone, and other Melbourne Award category winners and finalists, visit Melbourne Awards.

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