Konstandinos Karapanagiotidis is the CEO and Founder of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) in Melbourne, Australia. Founded in 2001 with only a small group of people and limited resources ASRC is Australia’s leading asylum seeker organisation supporting over 2000 asylum seekers with medical care, welfare and direct aid. ASRC campaigns for social change at all levels, from grassroots to government policy. Working with committed staff and over 600 volunteers, the ASRC is a multi-award winning and independent human rights organisation.
Why do you do the work that you do?
I do what I do because it is not a choice. I don’t think there is anything more important than fighting for freedom of life or death. I do what I do because I want to honour the liberty of my parents, all their struggles and sacrifices. I do what I do because I identify with the people I fight for. I love what I do and I am inspired by what I do and that’s why I do what I do.
What is the most pressing issue facing asylum seekers today?
The most pressing issue right now is the refusal of the developed, industrialised world to have a compassionate, humane, lawful, ethical refugee process and policy. The biggest challenge is how we get the western world to actually change its conversation and its policies in the way in which it responds to people seeking asylum, from one that is punitive and deterrent-focused that criminalises and conflates asylum with terrorism and find a way that is equitable, humane and honours the treaties and conventions that it actually signs on to.
What change in government policy would you most like to see?
Most of all, the end of mandatory detention. Mandatory detention is inhumane, immoral, prohibitively expensive, unnecessary, and doesn’t work. The most wonderful thing I would love to see right now is the end of it and what already exists, which is the community processing of all people seeking asylum. Detention traumatises, institutionalises and damages people and I would love to see the end of that.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give an asylum seeker?
You are resilient, you are strong. Do not lose hope. Do not give up. Keep fighting. Your story is important. You struggle is real. Your sacrifice is profound. You are not helpless; you are not weak; you are not powerless. You are a survivor. Whatever has got you to this point, will get you through this as well.
How can the ordinary person in the street help make a difference to improve the situation of asylum seekers?
The ordinary person can do one very simple thing, which is do something. Donate to an asylum seeking charity. Advocate. But most importantly, go and volunteer. Go and actually meet an asylum seeker. Tell someone seeking asylum [that] I am someone in my country that wants you here, that believes in you and that actually believes in the idea of the rule of law. I am someone who wants to hear your story, bear witness to it, break bread with you, and welcome you. Just do something.
What is the greatest challenge you have faced?
Number one has been trying to change Australia to develop a compassionate and humane approach on an issue that is politicised and driven by racism and intolerance. Number two, how do I keep my amazing, wonderful group of people who give their time and energy to my organisation from losing hope and not be broken by a country and culture that demonises and vilifies asylum seekers refugees? Number three, not losing hope and faith that how I am leading and what I am saying is resonating and can change things. And that what feels like a daily life battle, is a fight that can be won.
The greatest challenge is not betraying hope. Not losing faith in the goodness of people. The greatest challenge is believing that you can change the world no matter how much reality tells you otherwise.
What do you regard as your greatest achievement?
The organisation on its own has achieved three things, which we are really proud of in the state of Victoria. Access to the public health system for free medical care; free access to education for asylum seekers; and half price public transport. Another achievement is how the organisation is still here ten years later and has helped several thousand people through the process of seeking asylum and has been part of mobilising a movement that wasn’t there a decade ago.
Who or what has been the greatest influence in your life?
My greatest inspiration is my mum and dad. My dad had no materialism to him, no sense of judgement. He accepted everyone as they were and he had a profound work ethic and ability to sacrifice. What I learnt from my father was to take pride in my community. My mother, as she is a powerful and inspirational woman who taught me respect for women and the power for fighting for what you believe in.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
It was actually anti-advice. I was a social work student at the time on placement and my supervisor came to visit me. She turned to my supervisor and said, “Kon will make a great social worker as long as he learns how to tame the fire in his belly. If he can just extinguish that it will be okay”. But I never, ever lost that. That was the greatest piece of advice ever.
The greatest advice I can give to someone is follow your heart, believe in yourself, there is no such thing as failure. How can you fail for dreaming?
What is the one thing that you want to be remembered for?
I’d like to be remembered for being a person that was willing to walk the talk.
Why does storytelling matter?
Storytelling matters because storytelling exposes. Storytelling matters because it speaks to the profound truth in all of us that no one can hide from, deceive or silence. Storytelling matters because it shares the truth of what people actually experience and go through in a way which is devoid of artifice, spin, agenda. It matters because it appeals to the best in us.
Storytelling is the only space we can come as equals. It is about risking a moment to be intimate, vulnerable, transparent, visceral, raw.
Here is my story - in this moment you have a choice to be something in that moment with me. I am telling you the story because that is my truth. I am telling you my story because I refuse to be silent. I am telling you the story because I am giving you a space to join me in my journey. To carry that story. To honour that journey. To fight for my story. To do something with my story. And to help change the world through my story. What I am giving you is the most pure, unadulterated, raw reality of what my life is in this moment and I am giving you a gift. A gift of my truth as I experience and see it. I am giving you a space to hear, understand and learn from my experience.
There is nowhere to hide. That is the power of story.
What is your motto?
Be as idealistic as possible, take as many risks as possible, do the opposite of everything people tell you that you can’t do. Your starting point should be everything that is irrational, impossible and improbable!