THE moment Rosemary Kariuki set foot in Australia she gave thanks to God, and now Australia is giving thanks in return.
Known affectionately as “Big Mama Rosemary” in Sydney’s western suburbs, she’s the NSW Local Hero in the 2021 Australian of the Year awards.
Ms Kariuki, who migrated from Kenya in 1999, is being honoured for her outstanding work helping other migrant women overcome the scourge of isolation.
Having arrived in Sydney alone and with no supports, she knows very well what a challenge that can be.
Her early years in Australia were lonely ones after she’d fled Kenya to escape family abuse and tribal clashes.
Her big advantage was that she knew she had God on her side.
“It was faith which gave me that strength to leave Kenya and come here,” she said.
“I was coming to a country I didn’t know and I didn’t know anyone else here.”
So she made sure she prayed before she took the chance.
“One thing I prayed about, and I’ll never forget … First of all when I wanted to (leave Kenya), I prayed, ‘Take me to a country … God, you know me how I am – take me to that country where you know I that I will fit in’,” she said.
“And when I arrived in Australia, I said, ‘Oh, thank you God, you have just given me what I prayed for’.”
Ms Kariuki is a multicultural community liaison officer for the Parramatta Police, and she specialises in helping migrants who are facing domestic violence, language barriers and financial distress.
She’s also an active member of her parish in western Sydney.
The citation for her Local Hero award said Ms Kariuki’s personal experience helped her recognise that “isolation is a huge issue for many migrant women”.
“Many aren’t used to going out alone, have no transport and speak little or no English,” the citation said.
“So Rosemary devised ways to help women leave their house and meet women in similar circumstances.”
She found the answer on the dance floor, around the dinner table and in the countryside.
In partnership with the African Women’s Group, she helped start the African Women’s Dinner Dance.
Now in its 14th year, more than 400 women attend the annual event.
“Rosemary’s warmth, courage and kindness inspire all who meet her. Her work was the subject of the documentary ‘Rosemary’s Way’,” her award citation said.
Ms Kariuki’s volunteering in Australia began with the Church.
“When I came (to Australia) St Vinnies gave me a place to live in Randwick in Sydney, and I was very lonely; I was alone and I started volunteering with the Little Sisters of the Poor, where I could visit lonely and elderly people,” she said.
“I did that for three years.
“From there I started looking for the African community …
“I found the African Community Council and their offices were in Marrickville and I started volunteering there.”
In 2006, Ms Kariuki realised many Africans were settling in Australia – South Sudanese, Sierra Leonians and Liberians – “and they were not accessing the services”.
African migrant and refugee women who most needed support were not taking advantage of available services, and were living in isolation so Ms Kariuki looked for the best way to reach out to them.
“I thought, ‘What do women like?’ and said, ‘Women like dancing … Dancing is part of their culture … it’s innate … And the food’,” she said.
“I thought I will do a dinner dance, so when I started selling my idea everybody said, ‘Nobody would give you funding for a dinner dance …’
“I said, ‘It’s not a dinner dance; it’s a vehicle for the people to come and know about the services out there for them …’
“And, for sure, the first dinner dance we had 350 women attend, and there was a domestic violence survivor who talked about her experience and how she overcame that.
“The following Monday we had about 20 women come to report domestic violence.
“So we opened doors …”
Ms Kariuki also organises country visits to places around Sydney – the Blue Mountains, the South Coast and Central Coast – in an attempt to break down barriers and isolation.
“Our people live in silos – the Iraqis, the Iranians, Kenyans, Ugandans, they don’t mix, and I want people to get out there and mix, and that’s (what happens) when we are going to the country, to different regions, like we go to Ulladulla, we go to Kiama, Gerringong, we go to Port Macquarie …,” she said.
They meet with women living in those places.
“And at all these places we go to, the women you’d think they were borne by one mother; they are laughing …,” Ms Kariuki said.
“Even the ones who have (problems with different language) they are communicating; I don’t know how they communicate.
“They are very, very happy so when they mix like that, when they come back, I encourage them to continue doing that.
“So, for example, now with this COVID, which is (detrimental to) mental health because of isolation, I’ve been giving them ideas how they can have a picnic outside with a few friends but they do it in a COVID-friendly way, and they can even take a train and go to the city or even to the Blue Mountains, and once they’re there – they can pack their sandwiches – and they don’t have to use any money if they don’t have money.”
Ms Kariuki said she did what she did “because I love seeing people happy”, and one of her supporters said “laughter is her secret weapon”.
Her faith is also a major driver.
“I’ve gone through a lot of hardships and in this country we have everything, provided you know where it is,” she said.
“So what I do I do because I have the passion and I don’t like seeing people suffering; and, because I have a lot of information, I can share.”
She said her faith was “number-one” and she was a prayerful person.
“Before I do anything I always pray about it and I also meditate about it, and I put God first,” she said.
“Even before we travel, on that day I pray, we pray.
“When the women are going through issues, I always say, ‘Put God number-one …’
“So my Christian faith has played a big part of what I do.”