Former Australian of the Year, Local Hero and former Kenyan refugee Rosemary Kariuki explains what drives her life-changing work in Sydney’s west.
When Rosemary Kariuki stepped off the plane in Sydney from Kenya, she had just $300 to her name and nowhere to stay. Her plan was to take a taxi from the airport to the nearest cheap hotel, but in December 1999, the pre-smartphone era, finding even the most basic information was difficult for a newly arrived refugee.
“With bags in hand, I started looking for the exit,” she says. “I approached a young Ethiopian woman for help, and then the most magical thing happened. The woman, Meskerem, offered to let me stay with her. Meskerem’s kindness made me feel that God had sent a guardian angel to help me. I collapsed into her bed and slept like I’d been given a tranquiliser.”
Rosemary shares in her new book, A Joylife Life, many life-changing encounters with helpful strangers and her remarkable journey as a refugee. She also reveals periods of profound loss and suffering, abuse and terrible loneliness, which fuelled her passion for helping others.
“I’ve been through the ups and downs and I remember what it was like when I had no one to hold me,” she says. “So for as long as I’m able, I’m going to keep showing up.”
For the past 17 years, Rosemary has worked as a community liaison officer for NSW Police in Auburn, promoting connections between refugee women and the police. When she began, few newly arrived women knew about the services available to help them, and – as Rosemary soon realised – some were trapped in coercive and abusive relationships.
For Rosemary, information is everything, and she knows the powerlessness that comes from not-knowing. As a child in Kenya, she was sexually abused from a young age by male relatives; when she became pregnant at 14 she didn’t connect her swelling stomach with what had happened to her in the maize fields near her village, or at night in the crowded house.
“Nobody at home was giving me any sort of information,” she says. “I thought it was because I was a teenager and liked eating.”
Later, she was married to a man in Kenya who abused her verbally, financially and emotionally, but she didn’t realise this experience had a name. It was only when she started working with the police in Sydney that she was able to identify it as family violence.
“I had never before been provided with the information to enable me to understand the abuse I had suffered,” she says.
Very quickly, Rosemary realised that the best way to reach refugee women wasn’t through leaflets. She saw social activities such as coffees, meetings and dances, where women could share their stories, as the most effective strategy.
And she was right. After the first African Ladies Dinner Dance in 2006, a domestic violence survivor stood up to tell her story. Later on, 20 women reported their own abuse to caseworkers at the Auburn Migrant Resource Centre. Since then, Rosemary has helped hundreds of women to find jobs, support and confidence to leave their abusers.
Rosemary has been awarded and celebrated for her extraordinary work in helping refugee women. Ros Horin, one of the Leading Women Fund’s ‘Founding 50’ donors, made an acclaimed documentary – Rosemary’s Way – about her, and in 2021 she was named Australian of the Year Local Hero in recognition of her work with refugee and migrant women in her local community.
Today, Rosemary continues her work with the police and volunteers in her community. She has become a grandmother, and she lives in a house she owns. She remains friends with Meskerem, who she calls her “Aussie mum”.
"I’ve been here for 23 years and I thank God for bringing me to Australia,” Rosemary says. “I have many people who have taken me in as their mother, their sister, their friend. This is my home.”
Rosemary’s autobiography A Joyful Life is available in bookstores.
The majority of funds raised by Australia for UNHCR are directed to UNHCR’s emergency operations, providing the ready funds and resources to respond quickly and effectively in situations of crisis and disaster.