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The Australian Man Who Built a Home for Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Flickr - Jameson Wu

There have never been more displaced people around the world then there are right now. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that there are currently 65.6 million people being forced from their homes, with 22.5 million of those being refugees.

In 2015, 2.45 million refugees were recognised or settled internationally, according to the Refugee Council of Australia. Of these, less than 0.5% (11, 776 people) were assisted by Australia.

As these devastating numbers increase, and conflicts such as the humanitarian crisis in Syria continue, there has never been a more important time to support asylum seekers and refugees. That’s what makes the work of Australian organisation the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) so important.

In 2001, Melbourne higher-education teacher, Kon Karapanagiotidis, launched a student-run and community-funded food-bank to support asylum seekers living in Australia. What began as a few boxes of food, in a 20 square metre shop-front in Footscray, has grown into what is now the well-renowned organisation, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

Today, the ASRC is Australia’s largest independent human rights organisation advocating for refugees and asylum seekers.

Since 2001, they have supported and empowered around 12,000 people seeking asylum. Their foodbank is resourced by the community and multiple partners, including Foodbank Victoria and Ozharvest, and feeds over 600 people weekly.

The ASRC runs 30 programs which provide free legal advice, vocational training, educational and employment services, health and support services, and professional mentoring, in addition to a variety of social enterprise and community engagement programs.

With the assistance of over 1,300 volunteers and 90 staff, the ASRC currently supports around 3,000 people seeking asylum each year.

“We are also grateful to count as part of the ASRC family, 46 staff and 91 volunteers currently seeking asylum,” said Kon. “This ensures people with lived experience of seeking asylum are at the centre of all we do.”

"If you give something to the community, the community gives back,” said one such volunteer. “My favourite thing about volunteering is helping people, and representing that I am an asylum seeker to other people. We're not here to sit, sleep and eat, we want to do something significant for the community and for the people.”

The centre operates around four guiding principles:

1. People seeking asylum are treated fairly and humanely with their rights respected under international human rights law.

2. People seeking asylum are valued and are able to determine and advance their own futures.

3. People seeking asylum experience the best possible physical, mental and social well-being.

4. A thriving people centred organisation that is financially and operationally sustainable.

Additionally, in 2015 the ASRC launched Words that Work, a groundbreaking collaborative research project which aims to reframe the national conversation around people seeking asylum and also improve community engagement. This year, the ASRC is running monthly tours of their Footscray Home of Hope for anyone who wants to get an up-close look at the amazing work they’re doing.

“Before, I felt very alone, like no one is here to help,” said one asylum seeker who the centre has supported. “If you leave your country, your heart is very small. You don’t have family, relatives, no one is here. When I went to the ASRC I feel I have family, I have friends, people who care. The ASRC is my friend, then I feel not alone in Australia.”

So how can you help? On June 20, the ASRC is holding a Telethon fundraiser as part of World Refugee Day, and hopes to raise “$300,000, to fund 12,000 nights of shelter, 1,699 holistic mental health support appointments and one year worth of food and groceries for 45 families.”

On the day of the telethon, you can call 1300 692 772 and speak to one of the ASRC’s wonderful volunteers. Among these will be a number of well-known faces, such as Missy Higgins and Julian Burnside, who are generously giving their time and support to the cause.

 You can also check out some of the incredible work that Kon and the ASRC team have been doing. We’re sure it’ll make your day.