When Rosemary Kariuki arrived in Sydney in 1999 after fleeing violence in Kenya, a year passed without a neighbor to greet her. Alone and longing for the sense of community she had at home, she decided to take action.
On Christmas Day 2001, she wrote down her contact details and invitations to tea or just say hello on Christmas cards and tucked them under the doors of more than a dozen flats in her building.
After that, her neighbors greeted her cheerfully, and Rosemary had found her life’s work.
“When I came here, nobody gave me information. I know women love to socialize, dress up, gather while eating and dancing, so I decided to use it to unite them to spread information and raise awareness about domestic violence, ”said Rosemary, who has a smile that lights up and even Zooms the screen.
Currently, Rosemary, 60, works as a multicultural liaison officer for the New South Wales Police in Campbelltown on the outskirts of Sydney, helping migrant women and refugees. Many women, like Rosemary herself, have experienced gender-based violence and face language, financial and cultural barriers that leave them feeling isolated.
In her spare time, Rosemary runs several projects to help new arrivals overcome the isolation, including a cultural exchange program that introduces refugees and migrants to local families, and an annual social event that brings together African refugees and migrant women.
In January, Rosemary won the Australian of the Year award from the Australian government. She is recognized as the country’s 2021 “Local Hero” for her commitment to changing lives, “especially for women and children.” In her acceptance speech at a ceremony in Canberra, Rosemary urged everyone “to open their doors to their neighbors”.
Rosemary’s work has never been more urgent. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating deep-rooted gender inequalities and discrimination faced by refugee women and girls, UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. warn today.
The lockdown has also trapped several women with their abusers, leaving them unable to seek help. In November, UNHCR reported sharp increase in violence against refugees and displaced women in several countries.
Many of the refugee women who work with Rosemary are rebuilding their lives after experiencing trauma, including violence either at the hands of family members or as a result of conflict or war in their hometowns. Some are still alive with their tormentors. Since the beginning of the pandemic, reaching them has become even more difficult.
“It’s very challenging, but it doesn’t stop us,” said Rosemary. “There are a lot of mental health problems that occur, and a lot of domestic violence that arises, a lot of helplessness. Most of the women have lost their jobs or are doing nothing at home and are depressed. “
Pascasie Mudera, a 42-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, lived in a Ugandan refugee camp for three years before resettling in Australia in 2007. He still often hesitates when talking about his past.
“Being a young girl and alone in a refugee camp, you face many challenges, starting with abuse,” she said.
Pascasie meets Rosemary on the street when an older woman approaches her to ask why she doesn’t wear jumpers in cold weather. Rosemary quickly befriends Pascasie and learns that he has a disability due to a childhood polio infection that makes it difficult for him to find work.
Rosemary introduced her to a disability advocacy organization that provides her with support, including better health care and the two-bedroom house she now shares with her three children. Pascasie also found a new job as a caseworker with a local non-profit organization that supports African migrants and refugees.
With Rosemary’s help, Pascasie overcomes her fear of going out and meeting people who don’t see her as a refugee.
“I started remembering that … I could build my life again and have a future.”
“I started remembering that ‘oh, I have to start over again’. I can build my life again and have a future, ”he said.
Rosemary’s cultural exchange program, the subject of the 2020 documentary is called The Rosemary Way, have helped newcomers like Pascasie build long-term relationships between refugees and local residents.
Maria Baden, 69, lives on a farm in Gerringong on the coast of New South Wales south of Sydney where she raises cows for wagyu meat. She met Rosemary in 2007 at a women’s event and was immediately impressed by her skill at running the sessions and the way “she made everyone laugh”. The two become friends and Maria begins helping Rosemary with a cultural exchange program.
The first time Maria held an event on her farm to match refugees with local residents, more than 36 refugee women shared their dishes and authentic stories with local families. Maria, who is organized and detail-oriented, marvels at how Rosemary just improvises and “calls on the spirit” to guide each guest to the most appropriate local family. Looks like it worked. A South Sudanese woman and her daughter quickly strike up a conversation with a local widow and daughter. The two widows immediately realized that they had something in common.
“The local woman lost her husband in a lightning accident, while the Sudanese woman lost her husband to war on the same date,” said Maria.
Rosemary also considers it important for migrant and refugee women to get along with one another. In 2006, she helped start the African Women’s Group. He invites women to dance, socialize and eat together with the aim of sharing information on a variety of issues ranging from abuse to parenthood. The first African Dinner Dance features victims of domestic violence as keynote speakers. The following Monday, 20 women who attended the event went to the police station to report incidents of domestic violence of their own.
“I love the fact that we can bring all these women together in a safe place,” said Edith “Ida” Nganga, a Kenyan migrant who helps the group and attended a recent surprise event to celebrate Rosemary’s Australia of the Year award.
“When he won, I felt like I won.”
“When he won, I felt that I was the one who won. He’s the first African to win such an award, ”said Ida.
Rosemary’s dream is to be able to pay off her mortgage and devote herself full time to her projects supporting women.
Her own role model is American talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who has spoken publicly about her abuse as a child and provided a platform for other survivors to share their own experiences.
“I love Oprah,” said Rosemary. “She inspired me a lot – how she coped with rape, lost the baby, but still keeps going and doesn’t stop. He inspires me to keep going. “
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