Australian of the Year 2021: Rosemary Kariuki named Local Hero

Rosemary Kariuki is 2021's Local Hero. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Rosemary Kariuki is 2021's Local Hero. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Rosemary Kariukiis a true local hero.

The "multicultural community liaison officer" for the Parramatta Police in New South Wales is renowned for her smile and good humour as she does important and often difficult work among migrants in western Sydney.

She arrived in Australia in 1999 after fleeing violence in Kenya. She grew up on a farm in the Kenyan town of Eldoret with 16 brothers and sisters. She came from a radical background: her father fought British colonial rule and spent seven years in jail.

When she arrived, she knew nobody but had already decided that she was definitely going to make friends so she brought humble gifts from Kenya in her suitcase, along with clothes and a few hundred dollars.

And her broad smile and ebullient friendliness.

She quickly showed enterprise, setting up an "African Village Market" program to help African migrants start their own businesses.

For the last 15 years as a police liaison officer, she's been helping victims of domestic violence, not just by dealing with the immediate issues as they arise, often in crisis, but by helping victims find their feet and meet other people, whether in morning teas or in more formal social groups.

"I use friendly ways to reach and engage with women, like the Cultural Exchange Program where I take women to the countryside to exchange culture," she toldAustralian Community Media.

"By the third day, they have made friends who share their issues, like domestic violence and lack of employment.

"I use high teas to talk about mental health and a mother-and-daughter dinner dance to talk about domestic violence, forced marriages, slavery and how they can keep away from the isolation.

"I help police to communicate with non-English speaking people who are migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

"Where we come from we fear the blue uniform, and thus people like me go into the community to help to increase that trust."

When she won the state Local Hero title, Parramatta police said they were "thrilled".

In 2012, Parramatta Council named her Citizen of the Year.

More than 400 women now attend the annual African Women's Dinner Dance which is now in its 14th year.

"I started the African Women's Dinner Dance in 2006 because African women were isolated, couldn't access services and dancing is in our blood," Ms Kariuki said.

She said she loved living in Camden near Campbelltown because of its multicultural community.

"People are real, they stop to say 'hi' and want to know more," she said. "They are friendly and the council engages with the community.

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"My neighbours visit me and likewise I visit them. We share food, gardening and celebrate with each other."

Ms Kariuki said she was grateful to live in Australia. "I'm very proud that Australia accepted me in their country, to be able to educate my boys and also to fill those gaps that services do not understand through my volunteering with women and the migrant community.

"I also acknowledge the Indigenous people of Australia for opening this land to us. Thank you for accepting us migrants and refugees."

While accepting her award on Monday, Ms Kariuki said while Australia is a multicultural country she was worried communities lived in silos.

"We keep [to] our own people, [to] what is familiar, and miss that beautiful sharing of culture," she said.

"I would love to see more Australians, those born here, refugees, migrants, anyone who calls Australia home, [to] open their doors to their neighbours.

"Be open and not scared of any perceived differences because, as humans, we have more similarities than differences.

She encouraged the audience to meet someone new from a different background over the next week.

"See what doors open to you," she said.

"You will possibly be helping that person to experience their new homeland in a new way, and to feel they belong."

This story Rosemary Kariuki named Australia's Local Hero for work helping domestic violence victims first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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