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“I knew the minute I landed, my prayers had been answered”

Rosemary Kariuki-Fyfe came to Australia in 1999 from Kenya, carrying all her best clothes in one suitcase and only $300 in her purse. Her efforts in the refugee community have now been publicly acknowledged, as she continues to make it her mission to help others.

“I knew the minute I landed, my prayers had been answered”

Africans have many proverbs in Swahili, and one of my favourites is Akili ni mali, or “Knowledge is power.” Throughout my life, I’ve seen how true this is.

I was born in a town in Kenya called Eldoret. My father owned a farm and had two wives and 16 children. He died when I was young, so we were brought up by our mothers. My mother was illiterate, but my father had left enough money for us to be educated. I finished school and studied to be a secretary. But life was busy and very hard, at school, or doing chores at home, like cooking or looking after the younger ones. I got married as soon as I had finished my studies to escape from this life, but unfortunately, my marriage wasn’t a happy one, though it brought me two sons.

My parents belonged to the Kikuyu tribe, whose homeland is around Mount Kenya, in Central Kenya. Their families migrated and settled in the Rift Valley in the west, and my parents were born there. This area was traditionally occupied by the Kalenjin tribe. Every five years, at election time, the Kalenjins stir up trouble for us Kikuyu, killing our people, looting our shops and homes, telling us to go back home. I had a shop and a wholesale business selling beauty products, which was broken into. I was attacked by a hammer on the head and lucky to be left alive.

This is why I had to leave Kenya and go as far away as possible. Many Kenyans migrate to England or the US, but I like doing the opposite of everyone else. I had learned at school about sheep and kangaroo in Australia and someone had told me it was a very nice place, so I thought, “Why not?”. The fact that I knew no-one there didn’t frighten me; when you are running from fire you are just looking for a safe place. I remember the moment I crossed the airport customs in Kenya, I felt a huge relief, like a heavy sack had been lifted off my back. It was as if a curtain had been opened for me.

I arrived in Sydney in December 1999 and I knew the minute I landed here that my prayers to God had been answered. I could feel it in the air. I ran to the first African person I saw at the airport, an Ethiopian lady, and I was so lucky she offered to take me under her wing. I have never had to sleep a night without a roof over my head. Over the next few months, I made some very good friends, African and Australian, and they really supported me. Life was lonely at times and I worked very hard. By focusing on my goal and ignoring obstacles around me, I was able to get through and bring my sons here to safety and educate them.

 Cultural differences

Life in Australia was very different to Kenya. There were many challenges and new things to learn all the time. I had never used a road directory or a mobile phone in Kenya and we only ate chocolate occasionally. Now, I could eat a chocolate or an ice-cream every day, and drink fruit juice instead of water, because I could afford to. Then a friend explained to me that I could end up with diabetes if I carried on like that. We had never been taught these things back home.

Even today, in my work as a community liaison officer, the main thing I try to give the people who are new to Australia is knowledge and information.
I think that helps more than money.

Voluntary work is a passion for me. I love to put the smile back on people’s faces. However, my ideas were always considered crazy by my colleagues, because they appear far-fetched. The idea of the African Women’s Dinner Dance, which I organised for the first time in 2006, came about because we Africans love dancing, especially the women. The event enabled 350 women to express themselves like they would at home, in a women-only zone; it has grown from strength to strength and we now have 600 women participating annually.

African women living in Sydney can also become very isolated in their homes and so the idea of having a place where they could meet, chat and sell their handiwork grew into the African Village Market, in Parramatta.

The project closest to my heart is the cultural exchange programme that I began with a group of Australian women from Ulladulla. They came to our dinner dance in 2008 and when they stayed in our homes, we learned so much about each other’s cultures. This programme now extends to women refugees of many nations and religions. We open up to each other’s cultures, food, fashions and songs. And realise that, mainly, we are all the same.

In 2010, I was able to bring my mother to Sydney for a visit. She was happy to finally see that where I lived – that I was safe and happy. It was the first time we had ever had the opportunity to sit together, talk, and get to know each other. My mother was amazed how good people are in Australia. When I took her on a road-trip, we bought oranges from an unattended farm shop and left money in a box. She said, “This is a different world. In Kenya, somebody would come, take the oranges, the money and the shed.’’

My hopes for myself are to build a family home and have some animals, chooks and a vege patch. The African proverb, Subira huvuta heri, “All good things come to those who wait,” is
truly what my life has been about.

Sharing Tales

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe came about through writer-director Ros Horin, who had a passion for refugees’ stories. She gathered four of us, all refugees from Africa. Over three years, we put together our stories. This was the best thing that could happen to me. I had never talked about many troubles that I had faced in Kenya and this process allowed me to peel away the layers of my life instead of suppressing them. We played to packed audiences at Sydney’s Parramatta Riverside and Belvoir theatres in 2013. Ros is looking into plans to take it to London in 2015.

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