A heart-warming story of a Greek immigrant in Australia and what moved him to help unwelcomed refugees and asylum seekers in the country.
GROWING up the son of Greek parents in a Victorian country town where he was taunted as ”not Australian”, Kon Karapanagiotidis felt a natural affinity, two decades later, towards unwelcomed asylum seekers.
From his family, he knew the other side of the picture.
”It is the experience of grief and loss for people forced to leave their country,” he said.
Mr Karapanagiotidis was a lawyer, social worker and university lecturer when a Red Cross worker referred a refugee Turkish boy who had suffered torture to him for counselling.
It was 2001, when boatloads of refugees arrived and referrals kept coming.
Mr Karapanagiotidis saw how destitute asylum seekers had nowhere to go for food.
He set his students a social project of organising food and fittings for a small shop a friend lent him in Footscray.
On weekends, he and his mother, Anastasia, trawled Melbourne’s food outlets to stretch donations for the foodbank that bit further.
Ten years later, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre has new premises in West Melbourne and fills gaps in 23 other supports for asylum seekers, including medical needs and English classes.
It draws around 1000 clients a year. The centre survives mainly on ”donations and goodwill” and the compassion of 700 volunteers, ”everyday Australians,” as he calls them.
Its independence allows him to speak out against government policy such as the current detention of 1003 children.
Working 10 hours a day as the centre’s CEO, there are times that tears are his response.
”It does break you at times,” he said.
”There are all the kids I see who feel driven to suicide, other self-harming and not eating.
”I’ve had a man trying to take his life in front of me. These are people who have come here hoping for a new life. It is my responsibility not to let them lose hope.”
Mr Karapanagiotidis, 38, has been awarded the medal of the Order of Australia for the distinguished service ”to the Australian community and humanity”.
While proud of the honour, he said: ”I hope it challenges people to remember that this country was built by ‘boat people’.
”The true Australian Day heroes are the refugees who have been willing to stand up for human rights and to be free.”