As the founder of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) in Footscray when he was just 28 years old – the human rights lawyer, fierce community advocate and social worker was motivated by his grandparents’ experience as refugees after they fled the Pontian genocide in Anatolia. This, and his experience of racism in the small Victorian town where he grew up, inspired a lifetime appetite for human rights.
He has also built a business on humanity. The ASRC was created after Kon observed that some of the most vulnerable community members, asylum seekers, were lacking even basic support. At 14, after being inspired by the prose of Martin Luther King, he set an intention to lead with compassion.
The ASRC is now both a place and a movement. It is the largest independent human rights organisation in Australia, and has supported over 12,000 people seeking asylum and close to 16,000 people seeking asylum and refugees in the last 16 years.
His drive and vision is relentless, and his passion is off the Richter scale. So it came as no surprise that when during this interview, he was caught up in the maelstrom of defending others portrayed negatively in media coverage – targeting young African Australian youth involved in criminal activity. In the whirl of coverage, which he described as ‘devastating’, he was quick to offer solutions, such as the call for more community mentors, and better pathways to employment and education for troubled youth.
And as usual, there was a fleet of willing volunteers right behind him. Some hours before, federal politicians and leaders made headlines after claiming Melburnians were too scared to eat out in certain suburbs – because they might encounter African Australian youth.
He said “here we are in the heart of Footscray, the heart of the African community, packing food ... We don’t feel afraid. We feel safe and valued and appreciated. The real story is that refugees have revived suburbs such as Footscray and Dandenong and contribute to and nurture them. They are so proud and grateful to live here. And here are political leaders undermining this work at a time when crime is going down in this state, not when it’s going up… the irony!”
He exclaims “that’s why now is the time to invest in young people, not demonise them. Our leaders want us to turn against each other when we should be unified. That’s monstrous”.
He’s also afraid that leading up to the Victorian state election, we are seeing issues around multiculturalism becoming increasingly politicised, something he notes has never been done before in a policy area, which has remained bipartisan in its support.
None of this is complicated. That’s the energy that drives the ASRC, we are a community of people coming together from Melbourne and all around the world. To bond together.
“The more our leaders speak, and the worse the narrative gets, the more goodness we see in people. More people take up active citizenship. That’s been an incredible driver. They think they’re breaking us. All they’re doing is lighting the fire for the next generation of people. The real question no-one is asking is how do we give these kids a sense of belonging?”
Kon says on the ground he is seeing a very different Australia than the one depicted in newspapers, one where people are proud of multiculturalism, and one where people are demanding something better.
“We actually have a harmonious society and the most liveable city in the world. We’re a success story because of our diversity, because of what migrants and refugees bring. They bring innovation, appreciation and commitment. They’ll give back ten times what they were given by this country.”
This interview was originally published in the Victorian Multicultural Commission publication, Proud to Belong.
Reviewed 21 July 2019