We have to keep helping and we have to keep fighting, for all our sakes
Byron Writers Festival guest Kon Karapanagiotidis overcame a traumatic childhood of racism, bullying and loneliness to create one of Australia’s largest human rights organisations, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, which has gone on to transform the lives of thousands of refugees. Following is an extract from his memoir The Power of Hope published by HarperCollins Australia.
I’ve been working since 9am, which is pretty standard. For my first 17 years running the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) a 70- or 80-hour week was the norm, so that isn’t what’s bothering me. I’m feeling broken after yet another bruising Wednesday-night legal clinic. Sure, one family had been granted asylum and rejoiced with tears of joy after years of struggle, and a dozen other families had their initial asylum claims lodged so they were full of hope. But I had spent most of the night telling people that their claims for asylum had been refused, that their legal options had been exhausted and they would have to prepare to return to their home country. As a human rights lawyer I have had this conversation with refugees many hundreds of times over the last 17 years. And each and every time the response is the same – total and absolute devastation.
I have had people collapse in front of me, while others weep uncontrollably. Of course I try my best to comfort and counsel them. And I’ve had others who have threatened to kill themselves on hearing such bad news. I keep those people from leaving my office until I have a safety and care plan in place for them. One night I kicked in the front door of a refugee’s home fearing they were going to take an overdose to kill themselves. And another time I had a refugee slash his arm in front of me in a moment of total despair and I had to stop him bleeding to death right there and then.
It’s difficult for everyday Australians to understand the grief and loss in this crippling moment when refugees hear such bad news. They have crossed half the earth in search of freedom, escaping lives torn apart by civil war, oppression and tyranny. Many of the people I have to speak to are fathers – they came first, often taking the perilous journey by sea so their families wouldn’t have to. They came to establish a new life before sending for their loved ones. These brave fathers have missed so many firsts: first birthdays, first baby steps, first words, first wedding anniversaries and the first place they called home.
These men have spent anywhere from two to 10 years to get to this point and are then told it’s over. Some of them survived years in immigration prisons, years of being denied the right to work or to study. They’ve had their mental and physical health ripped apart from the anxiety and depression caused by years of limbo, only to be told it’s finally over.
This is why I’m feeling broken. Even though I know I’ve done all I can, it’s just me in that room with them and I’m tearing their dreams apart.
Enough of the walking.
I step out into the road to hail an approaching cab. It’s late, we should be home. The cab driver says hello and Nola and I slump into the back, both relieved that sleep isn’t far away.
The driver is staring at me in the rear-view mirror.
‘Do you remember me, Kon?’ he asks. He turns around in his seat to speak to me face to face. ‘You helped me years ago when my family and I first arrived in Australia. You were my lawyer and helped us get asylum. And then,’ he says with a smile and shake of his head, ‘once we had somewhere to live, you and your friend Pablo turned up with a truckload of furniture to fill our home. We’d been sleeping on the floor before that.’
And now I recognise his face. It’s Mohamed. He came from Iraq. We shake hands, and he turns back to the road and starts driving. We talk and laugh, and he tells me how well his family is doing now.
When we pull up to my house Mohamed refuses to take any money. ‘Please, this is the least that I can do for you,’ he says and grips my hand with both of his. It is a fond farewell and his last words hit home: ‘I will never forget what you’ve done. You saved my family and I will always be indebted to you.’
That chance encounter has stayed with me and it has nourished me ever since. I don’t know what the odds of something like that happening that night are, all I know is how much it meant to me and how much I needed to hear those words. It reminded me that you can make a difference to the lives of people even when you don’t realise it. It reminded me of my own vocation. It reminded me of the power that hope can bring, and it reminded me that we have to keep helping and we have to keep fighting, for all our sakes.
Tickets at www.byronwritersfestival.com.
Extraordinary fables, memoirs, political analysis and tales of hope and tragedy all made for another successful Byron Writers Festival, held at the Elements of Byron resort under crisp blue winter skies.
Byron Writers Festival launched last night with a 200 strong crowd. There were a few famous faces in the crowd including Thomas Keneally author of Schindler's List.
The Festival is finally here! The small team at Byron Writers Festival works all year to create this renowned gathering, Australia’s largest regional literary festival that explores the myriad threads of our daily lives, our communities and the broader world.