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Kon Karapanagiotidis on the shadow of racism and ‘The Power of Hope'

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Kon Karapanagiotidis OAM, founder of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre talks to Daily Review about his new book ‘The Power of Hope’.
Kon Karapanagiotidis OAM is tired. He’s suffering a throat infection and has just returned from ten-day national book tour for The Power of Hope. Or How Community Love and Compassion can change the World. 
“Yiasou mate… I’m running ragged… they’ve worn me out again,” he rasps over the phone. 
Kon has decided to carry much on his shoulders as the founder and CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, (ASRC) in Melbourne. He is a human rights lawyer, social worker, philanthropist, masseur and lay chef.
“I never thought of writing a book. When Harper Collins approached me last year to write a book about hope, I was going through hard times; life was tough, but that was what inspired me because I thought all refugees and migrants struggle for hope,” he says. 
Kon has built a fiefdom of virtue. The centre’s lifeblood is made up of volunteers, many of them refugees and migrants. Philanthropy, fundraising and income-generation through various projects and services add to the centre’s coffers for its very necessary work. 
“The people I work for struggle on a daily basis; refugees, asylum seekers, and all of us struggle regardless of who we are.” 
The ASRC works for asylum seekers who suffer the Kafkaesque horrors of Australia’s off-shore detention camps; asylum seekers on temporary visas have been cut off from the meagre $35 a day support that Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) provided up until June this year. 

We talk of how Andrew Bolt, the “son of Dutch migrants, who also felt the hurt and pain of racism”, is adding to the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim chimera in the media. “It maybe self-loathing; the desire to be accepted in the mainstream,” says Karapanagiotidis.

Kon empties himself out in his book. It’s an agonising, gripping and stirring read. He writes of his struggle with his body image, his tenacity to reclaim ‘his narrative’by running marathons and travelling the world. He talks of the emotions that overwhelmed him when he visited a former-Nazi death camp. In The Power of Hope one sees how his own life, his work, turned turn anger into a beam of light.  
But the book also acts as a mirror to many of us who are migrants or the the children of migrants. It begins with a hagiography of his grandmother Parthena, one of the hundreds of thousands Pontian Greeks who suffered in the Genocide sanctioned by the Ottoman Empire in 1923.  
He writes about his father and mother who ‘sacrificed everything for Nola [Kon’s sister] and me, working as labourers on farms and factories until their bodies could no longer take it. They worked hard for more than forty years so that their children could dream of something better’. 
Reading his book tore scabs from wounds of my own that I thought had healed. Wounds that I hope my son won’t carry.
Kon’s father, like mine, died in his early 60s. Like many of our fathers, these men were broken. Broken by war and exile. Our parents survived the horror of the Nazis and they saw their people descend into the fratricide of the Greek Civil War after the Nazis left.  
Regardless of our parents’ divergent class backgrounds, his working-class and mine petit bourgeoisie, they were humiliated by bigotry. 
“I wanted to honour my father in this book and my mother. They survived in spite of the racism and all that we are, my sister Nola and I, is because of them,” he says. 
Kon talks of the reality that children of migrants “have to be exceptional and our resilience and our unbreakable spirit is because of our parents”. 
Both his parents had what Kon describes in his book as ‘an unforgiving childhood’ and were raised in poverty and forced to leave school at an early age.
Once in Australia, they worked in factories and on the tobacco farms of regional Victoria.
“They were treated like shit on the tobacco farm and later my father was treated with contempt by his boss and peers in Collingwood in a wool dye factory,” says Kon. “It was casual racism by the boss and workers; they assumed my dad was a peasant and stupid. They’d laugh at my father in front of me, and my mother also used to suffer daily humiliation.”
Yet they provided for and raised a son who now has an OAM after his name. He and his sister Nola share eight university degree between them.
“That is what migration and struggle create,” he says.
I remember my own father being kicked off a bus in Adelaide when I was in my late teens and the driver shouted ‘Fuck off you dirty wog’. 
We talk of the racism now expressed towards Africans and Muslims, especially by some in our own communities. How can we who claim Aristotle’s legacy, his search for ‘good’, or even the Christian message of love, be wary of this new wave of immigrants and refugees? 
“We need to be reminded that we – Greeks and Italians – may not cop the same level of abuse as Africans or Muslims do, but we did once, and we still suffer bigotry. 
“You have felt aggressions, assumptions, stereotypes, accepted all the jokes, the stuff we’ve taken in for years and made us resilient, and some of us self-loathing,” Kon says.
We end the conversation talking about how Andrew Bolt the “son of Dutch migrants, who also felt the hurt and pain of racism as child or young man” is adding to the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim chimera in the media. 
“It maybe self-loathing; the desire to be accepted in the mainstream. Many in our immigrant communities desire validation,” Kon says. 
“I always say in my talks, everyone here other than the Aboriginal people are migrants or refugees be they from England, Ireland, Poland, Greece, China or anywhere.”
He regularly sites Dr Martin Luther King Jr. as his inspiration. However, he seems more like Martin Luther, the German radical monk-activist. In The Power of Hope, Kon begins his search in torment and grief, burdened with physical, emotional and intellectual pain, arguably an echo of Luther’s. And, like Luther’s 95 Theses, Kon has built the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, (ASRC) as a beacon for hope.
We both agree that for all the indignities migrants suffered then, and suffer now, there were always those who welcomed us. 
Photo of Kon Karapanagiotidis by Kristoffer Paulsen



15 responses to “Kon Karapanagiotidis on the shadow of racism and ‘The Power of Hope'

  1. Sounds like Kon’s parents got a tougher than usual experience in Australia…….but they weren’t in fear of their lives, nor their hard earned wealth nor their children’s opportunities.
    Maybe Kon can let us know what is his solution to the people smuggler operations itching to get going again once a ‘stop the boats’ policy is abandoned.

    1. Maybe you should ask why my Dutch mother and Sicilian father had to paint over the “bloody wogs” graffiti our neighbours painted on our back fence again and again when I was a kid. Or why at the beginning of every year in primary school in the 1970s I was placed in the bottom maths and English groups in class, even though i’d finished at the top the previous year. Or why one teacher told me I was an excellent speller for “a migrant” (I was born and raised in Melbourne). Or why on my first afternoon as a paperboy selling selling The Herald in a pub the owner told me to stop using my “wog name” or i’d never get any tips (he was right, and after a week I did anglicise my name).
      Kon’s Parents’ experiences weren’t unusual at all. And non-Anglo Australians should remember that when they even think of agreeing with filth like Fraser Anning.

      1. Adrianus… are obviously moving with a better type of Aussie now… must expect the bogans of that era to be prejudiced….the ill-educated always are to some degree……and might I enquire whether you were prevented from sitting for a public examination at matriculation, or were you forced outside the exam room and seated under a tree? or were you prevented from excelling and earning a free place in one of our ‘sandstone’ universities? And now being able to freely express your opinion without fear of a knock on the door late at night?

    2. The boats have never stopped.
      They are merely turned back – where people can suffer out of our sight.
      There are many alternative solutions were we to drop the racism and dog-whistle politics and examine what’s possible in a logical and humane way.

  2. It is not only migrants who worked hard. Many Australians had parents on dry dairy farms who slaved to educate their children by sending us to boarding schools and in so doing did absolutely without so much. It was a honest generation of hard working people who have given my generation our success…

  3. I have loved Kon now the past few years – his life and the experiences of his family have not embittered rather awakened his own sense of compassion for those of difference who suffer bigotry and – let’s be honest here – persecution. I’m looking at Bolt and Morrison and Dutton and their ugly Media tycoon or PM enablers. And those who pose hypotheticals to detract from the good of those who wear their hearts well-and-truly on their sleeves. I have never been as selfless as either his parents or certainly as he and his sister and the team at the Asylum-Seeker-Resource-Centre – but at least I can recognise it. I grew up decades ago in rural NSW town – surrounded by immigrants from Italy, from The Netherlands (of vey different mien to Andrew Bolt I am happy to report) from England and Scotland – of German and Chinese and Irish ancestry – and First Nations background. A community of people. I read Kon’s book as soon as it was published – and I thought – THIS IS A MAN! This is the best of men in this land – riven to a certain extent by the negatives we all know so well of our fringe MPs and uglier shock-jocks. Looking to Boris and Nigel and Donald for their “aspirational” ugliness. Bravo, Kon.

    1. Good on ya Jim, your a real digger as I have seen you defending immigrants and multiculturalism in the past. I totally agree with you about Kon and the resource centre being selfless and of his compassion for others. I saw him in Sydney and found him a very motivational speaker especially considering the person he was to interview him about the book couldn’t turn up so he spoke for about 45 mins. It was better than I expected. I wish him luck.

  4. The commenter above could use a lesson in what was ‘tougher than usual’ and what was actually pretty standard treatment from many anglo-Australians.
    Thank you Kon and thank you Fotis.
    Your experiences resonate for me and my family too.

    1. Well Vicki K, those experiences were not pretty, nor were they fatal… experience as a kid in a middle class suburb was one of friendly relations with our Italian and Dutch migrant close neighbours….my father (a wounded WW1 veteran), enjoyed telling stories and swapping mangoes and bananas with the Italian shift worker Dad and I played with the Italian and Dutch kids, and went to the same State school in the same classes with them and we even had a much respected Chinese family a few doors up who actually attended the same Church where much loved Indian gentleman of very dark complexion was on the Parish Council (my mother always commented on his beautiful manners always standing until the ladies were seated), and the same church Choir was led by a Sri Lankan contralto who sounded much like her favourite…. Marian Anderson a renowned black singer of the era.
      And folks; all this racial fermentation was happening in that deep north country town of Brisbane in the sixties!!

  5. Everyone reading this knows that Europe is currently in a migration crisis right? That large parts of the population are refusing to integrate, learn the local language or gain employment. Look at the increase in rapes in Sweden and other European countries and instances of swimming pools needing segregation. Does Australia really want these problems too?
    It is difficult to have an adult discussion on this when the term racism is used so lightly.

  6. Yesterday a bloke walked into an examination centre in Afghanistan and blew away 35 kids. Not long prior to that a bloke walked into a Coptic Christian church in Egypt and tried to blow it up and a bloke tried to run over an kill a bunch of people in England and on and on it goes. We have peace in our time but when some minorities outbreed us to become significant what will happen. No wonder the majority of Australians are fearful of where this will end. In the meantime we will be such a bunch of goody goodies in denial.

    1. Thanks for proving racism is alive and well in Australia. Outbreed “us”? Who is this “us” you seek to address? All people who believe in kindness and tolerance? All people with compassion and open minds? You try to say “us” meaning white Anglo-Saxons, but I’m white and I reject your attempt to label me or anyone else because of a minor trait of appearance. Scientifically there is only one race- the human race. No one can “ outbreed us” because we are all “us”.

  7. Find any article about immigration or racism and out come those who generate fear and aspersions on other ethnicities especially those who have arrived in recent years to this country. Someone above asks what will happen when the “stop The boats” policy is abandoned and boats start returning. Who says boats with refugees are not trying to get to Australia being a safe country? We don’t know because the govt deliberately do not tell us if they are still trying to get here as their policy is to not confirm or deny. Of course we know it wasn’t only migrants that have had to work hard here but these people had the additional stresses of being victims of racism and bigotry, in the form of verbal and or physical abuse due to a number of reasons from the spelling of their name, to religion, ethnicity and or colour of their skin. Having abuse shouted at your family while you are watching and hearing it as a child can leave scars and long lasting issues. We need our politicians and media to keep repeating clearly and loudly that racism is never tolerated.

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