ROSEMARY Kariuki, the refugee from Kenya who has changed the lives of so many people in Western Sydney, is the 2021 is Australian Local Hero of the Year.
She was named NSW Local Hero of the Year last November and spent this past weekend in Canberra, “not expecting to win” but to attend the much-awaited Australian of the Year award ceremonies on the eve of Australia Day.
On her way to Parliament House, she posted a photo on Facebook of herself and other awardees on the bus and captioned: “On my way to meet ScoMo!” to show how excited she was to meet Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
They met at Parliament House and greeted each other with the COVID-Safe elbow rub, and while Rosemary made her acceptance speech, Mr Morrison and Mrs Jenny Morrison watched in awe from their seats in the audience as the refugee from Kenya who has been championing the cause on reducing the toll on domestic violence affecting women in Western Sydney was announced the winner.
Rosemary’s WhatsApp page has been humming with congratulatory messages from near and far, but when she gets back to work, she will be the usual courageous, affable, and warm woman known for her hearty laugh on her 16th year as Multicultural Community Liaison Officer for the NSW Police in Parramatta.
It was while volunteering with the African Women’s Group, that Rosemary was offered a civilian role at one of the busiest police headquarters in the suburbs.
Each day, her job at the Marsden Street station entails solving problems for ethnic women victims of domestic violence and other crimes, and act as the go-between to break barriers with language, finances, and other issues derailing law enforcement.
In Parramatta, at least 519 women per 100,000 of the population are assaulted by their partners, according to the apprehended DV orders report ranking each local government area in NSW.
Rosemary agrees these statistics made her chosen vocation jagged and tough, yet she says it is the “most rewarding job” she has ever done because she can help others while healing her own tragic past.
Escaped great conflict
“Working as a community liaison officer has been a very rewarding job for me,” says the 60-year-old, who came to Australia in 1999 to escape a horrific sexual violence and bloodletting conflict with tribes in her native Kenya.
She was in her 30s working as a secretary and administration officer and had two sons and family she hastily left behind to seek refuge in Australia. It took a few years of getting accustomed to the Australian way of life before the MCLO role landed on her patch.
She was also appointed as a Swahili language interpreter with the government’s Translating and Interpreting Service for migrants from East African countries such as Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi among others.
Rosemary started work as MCLO linking refugees from Sudan, Sierra Leone and Liberia to various government-initiated programs that led them to find jobs, access housing and become connected to the communities where they chose to live and raise their families.
“It is a two-way street to bring the police and the community together,” she said. “If the community don’t know the police and the police didn’t have an idea about the cultures in the community, crime [rate] will never go down.
“We take the police officers to meet the community to educate them about the different cultures in our area. We sit down with community leaders and they discuss and agree what is the best way to solve problems before a crime is committed.”
In Rosemary’s experience, it took a huge effort to break away from being socially isolated as a newcomer during her first three years in Australia, and this is a stark reality in the plight of other women migrants who speak little English or none at all, unable to drive a car to go out shopping, or has to follow strict cultural traditions.
The weight of the social problem pushed Rosemary to find a way to turn the corner, kickstarting the African Women’s Dinner Dance, an annual event now running on its 15th year with hundreds of ethnic women attending year in and year out without fail to meet up with other women through dancing and music.
“Music is part of us,” says Rosemary. “We celebrate our culture through music, when a baby is born, and we sing and dance during weddings and family celebrating milestones. That is how our people express our feelings, through music and dance.”
Series of cultural exchange programs
Many women were keen to run small businesses while raising children, but they didn’t know where to start, thus Rosemary promoted the African Village Market where those participating are discovering ways to learn new skills in managing a business, meet people and earn a living.
Rosemary ran a series of cultural exchange programs where women from 130 different cultures spend three days with a host family in regions and rural areas around NSW such as Kiama, Wollongong and Ulladullah in the south, the Central Coast, Griffith, Maitland, Albury and Port Macquarie in the north.
A documentary film, Rosemary’s Way, based on Rosemary’s life and work with the women from countries such as Congo, Peru and Iraq whose lives she touched and transformed for the better was produced by award-winning producer Ros Horin.
It was one of the 10 finalists for Best Australian Documentary at the Sydney Film Festival last year. Horin discovered Rosemary while making another documentary film, The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe.
The Kenya High Commission and the East Africa Community Association in the ACT has celebrated Rosemary’s recognition in the Australia Day awards on Saturday night at Gunghalin Golf Club.
Humanitarian worker, Olivia Wellesley-Cole said they did not expect Rosemary to win the award. “I nominated her because she has done something extraordinary and or something extraordinary has been done about her life.
“What she has been doing is not only about the African community but also for a lot of people in NSW. She had women from Afghanistan, Somalia and other countries which cultures are closed [on women’s issues], yet they were able to come [to the dinner dance] and get to know each other. What she did was outstanding.”
- By Elizabeth Frias