Kon Karapanagiotidis serves Philoxenia recipes to save refugees

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By Mary Sinanidis.

It’s Day 8 of the Appeal to save the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), and Kon Karapanagiotidis is working 18-hour days. Hustling. On the phone. On social media. Speaking to the press. Boosting the morale of his workforce. And continuing the day-to-day business at the centre which began as a foodbank and has branched out as a one-stop shop for hope with legal advice, health care, employment, housing and any form of humanitarian aid for asylum seekers and refugees.

Former prime minister Scott Morrison’s policies left the ASRC scrambling to offer aid to international students, asylum seekers and refugees in limbo during lockdown.

“We had to triple our programs. Almost 2.5 more every year was spent during the pandemic on food, on housing, on medicine,” Mr Karapanagiotidis said, while pointing to a 45 percent drop in people’s donations and urging people to donate to the ASRC’s appeal.

“As an independent human rights charter, we rely on our savings, but savings will only take you so far.

“If we can’t fulfil our obligations to our staff and we can’t find a way to raise that money, then we would have to shut our doors, as precious as this organisation is. That’s it.”

Those who think that Mr Karapanagiotidis is gunning for an impossible target would do well to remember the ASRC’s history – born from the impossible.

Mr Karapanagiotidis was a 28-year-old welfare studies teacher when he founded the organisation. It was created when he was unable to find not-for-profit organisations willing to take on his TAFE students for six-week placements.

What began as a TAFE project for 40 students has grown to have more than 100 permanent staff members and 1,100 volunteers. And the ASRC has helped thousands – 7,000 people per year.

Speaking on Teams from the ASRC’s Footscray facilities, the wall behind him is lilac but there is nothing pastel about Mr Karapanagiotidis, who jumps out larger-than-life through my computer screen, guns blazing when it comes to protecting the vulnerable.

It’s personal.

As part-Pontian, he carries the history of coming from a line of outcasts. But there was also his own working-class upbringing, and he urges Greeks to remember where they came from while lamenting that Greek Australians are not stepping up to help as much as they should be.

“The trauma of immigration has made so many of us so terrified that we slowly erase our stories and traditions so that we can forget,” he said. “So many of us are successful and we somehow think we did it ourselves. ‘No, you did it because your parents worked until their hands bled. On their backs’.”

His cookbook, titled Philoxenia, apart from raising money for the ASRC, is to save the stories through his mother’s recipes.

“I lost my father so young, and I didn’t want to lose these stories,” he said. “It’s a cookbook but it is a lot more than that. What I want to do is to start a conversation.”

He asks people to remember where they came from, to remember the previous generation and what they went through and to “do three things.”

Mr Karapanagiotidis urges people to 1. “Give if you can”; 2. “If you’re in Melbourne, come and volunteer with us”; and 3. “put pressure on your local member of government, and use your voice to ask why Australia isn’t doing enough to help people.”

Mr Karapanagiotidis practices what he preaches. He has already given $30,000 of his own money and is waiting for the cookbook sales to inject much needed funds to the ASRC.

“I’m hoping I can raise another $50,000 in sales if all goes well,” he said.

Despite being on the brink of closure, Mr Karapanagiotidis does not want a cent of federal government money “on principle.”

“Let me give you an example. Last week, we were one of the leading voices in a number of issues,” he said, rattling off a list of federal government decisions on which the ASRC took a stand, including the government trying to turn a federal court decision for the immediate redetention of 100 people or refusing to commit for the closure of the Austral detention centre.

“We are independent. That’s our power. That’s why people trust us. We’re not in the pocket of any political party, or any religious group. That’s where our credibility comes from. That’s how we change things.

“What’s the point of surviving if you can’t change things.” 

And he plans to survive and is already looking to the next steps once this crisis is over. He points to hopes for a global work network and to connect with Greece. “It’s the same issues. It’s the same crisis,” he said.

Find out more about how you can help the ASRC here.

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