For Rosemary Kariuki, friendship, trust and social connections are the most powerful forces in the world.
Rosemary has worked for nearly two decades to help refugees and migrants overcome financial stress, domestic violence and cultural and language barriers. Most of the people she helps are women, often with children. New to Australia, and uncertain about how to get work, many aren’t used to going out alone and are fearful of leaving their house. Rosemary’s tireless support has helped countless women become safer, more fulfilled and more connected with life.
“My help is about helping people come out of their shell and providing them with information,” she says. “Because when you come to this country there’s so many things you don’t understand.
“Sharing information is very important for people. It changes their life forever. Also, social setups for migrant women are very important. It connects them to a community. They make new friends, they share what they've been doing or what they're up to. They share jobs, information.
And, they have become part of a bigger family. It gives them strength and hope. It empowers them.”
Rosemary helped to start the African Women’s Dinner Dance, now in its 14th year and attended by more than 400 women each year, and the African Village Market, which helps refugees and migrants start their own business.
For the past 15 years, she has worked as a multicultural community liaison officer with NSW Police in Parramatta. Her work helping vulnerable migrant women in suburban Sydney is the inspiration for 2020 feature documentary Rosemary’s Way.
Helping one woman, she says, can help a thousand others. “I can’t be there for everyone, but they can be there for each other,” she says. “Once I connect them it gives them ideas of things they can do together. They also support other women. So my job becomes easier and easier because the women meet each other, another person who's already empowered.”
A helping hand from ‘Mama Africa’
Rosemary’s motivation to help others comes from her own life. In 1999 she fled Kenya to escape inter-tribal clashes and domestic abuse within a marriage and from family members. As a new migrant in Australia, she struggled with loneliness and a lack of information about social services, finding work and connecting with others to find a community.
“That's why I do it,” she says. “I know people in this country, they don't give information. They assume you know it. But how can you ask something if you don't know?
“I hate seeing people suffer. I've suffered myself. I’ve been to hell and back. So I don't want other people to go through what I went through. That's why I keep on doing what I do.”
As Refugee Week (June 20-26) celebrates the courage, contribution and resilience of refugees, Rosemary’s work helping vulnerable refugee and migrant women and their families remains paramount. Honoured as the Local Hero in the Governor-General’s Australian of the Year Awards 2021, she is known among the many people she helps as “Mama Africa”.
“The lady who gave me accommodation and opened her home for me the first time I landed here, I used to call her mum,” she says. “Even though she was younger than me. I called her ‘Aussie Mum’ because she mothered me.
“I didn't tell anyone to call me ‘Mama’, but they know if they need information or to connect them with someone, I can help them. I'm like a mother hen who looks after the chooks.”
Rosemary believes everyone, no matter their circumstances, has skills to offer the community. “Don't just think, ‘What can I get?’ Ask yourself, ‘What can I give back to the society?’ Because that will give you something. I want you to share the little that you have.”