How Big Mama Rosemary is changing the lives of migrant and refugee women – Sydney Morning Herald

In the home she shares with grandson Montel – her two sons, aged 33 and 37, also live in Sydney – women from Kenya, the Congo, Burundi, South Sudan and other parts of Africa sing traditional songs, clapping and swaying. Other women – from India, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran – chat, cluck over babies, and eat traditional food.

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“I’m a great believer in different women, different cultures, coming together,” Kariuki-Fyfe says.

You would not know it from her warm demeanour and easy manner but she has faced her own traumas on the way to becoming an inspirational figure for migrant and refugee women in Sydney. She grew up on a farm – one of 16 children – with a father who was jailed for seven years for fighting against colonial rule. Arriving in Sydney, she was desperately lonely.

“I didn’t have any person to give me any information,” she says. “And I know it’s better somebody giving you information than giving you money. So instead of sitting down and being lonely, I said, ‘How can I help our people?’ That was a time when a lot of Africans were coming in – the Sudanese, the Liberians, the Sierra Leoneans. Working with men is very difficult. The youth have got the schools. But the women have nowhere.”

She realised many of these women shared particular challenges. “They have big families, they don’t have the language, they don’t have the transport,” she says.

While working for the police in Parramatta, Kariuki-Fyfe began a series of initiatives. She founded the African Village Market – a program to help migrants and refugees start their own businesses, which ran from 2011 to 2015. She was part of a group who started the African Women’s Dinner Dance, which has brought together hundreds of women every year since 2006 for music, dancing, traditional food and stories to overcome the isolation that many feel.

And Parramatta Council’s 2012 Citizen of the Year did not stop there. After Horin sought subjects for a play about the violence and trauma affecting many migrant women from Africa in 2011, Kariuki-Fyfe told her story in her first stage appearance in the 2013 hit The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, revealing her sexual abuse as a child. After the first season in Parramatta, she continued with the play for later runs at Belvoir St, in London and at the Sydney Opera House.

“The hard life I went through in Kenya, The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe really helped me upload that,” she says. “Because I’d never talked about it to anybody, that was the best thing that ever happened. Right now, I don’t think about it. But maybe if I do think about it, it doesn’t hurt because I’ve dealt with it. What makes me stand tall is because it didn’t define me. I’m strong.”

After Horin followed up with a 2016 documentary of the same name, about the play, she realised they had unfinished business. “When we were in rehearsals for the play, Rosemary was so often late and not there,” she says. “I used to get rather frustrated or annoyed. She said, ‘I’m busy’ and, ‘I’m doing really important things’. So when I finished the film I wanted to know more about what she was doing.”

That led to Rosemary’s Way, which is about another of Kariuki-Fyfe’s initiatives: a cultural exchange program to take migrant women to regional areas to meet what they call “Aussies” – Anglo Australians – who they rarely meet in their daily lives in such suburbs as Auburn, Villawood, Blacktown and Liverpool.

Rosemary Kariuki-Fyfe (bottom) with Yarrie Bangura, Aminata Conteh-Biger and Yordanos Haile-Michael from The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe.

Says Kariuki-Fyfe: “I remember this South Sudanese man saying ‘I’ve been in this country for 10 years and I still don’t feel I belong because no one has ever invited me into their home’. I thought, ‘Wow, is this an issue?’ It kept me thinking.”

Around that time, a group of women from Ulladulla on the south coast wanted to come to the African Women’s Dinner Dance but did not have the money for motels. “I said, ‘Don’t worry, if you don’t mind sharing beds, you can stay with us’,” Kariuki-Fyfe says. “In the morning we were making breakfast, cooking eggs, when one of the ladies from Ulladulla said, ‘We can [host you] and we can learn from each other’. That’s how the cultural exchange program was born.”

Since the first exchange to Ulladulla in 2008, Kariuki-Fyfe has taken up to 40 women twice a year into the homes of “Aussies” in such areas as Maitland, Port Macquarie, Central Coast, Bathurst, Griffith and Corowa, which has proven valuable for the hosts and hosted.

Horin originally thought they might just be sightseeing trips but discovered that women spending time together, cooking meals, learning about each other’s lives, then having a party in traditional dress could be a deeply affecting experience.

“I think the act of just being taken into an Aussie’s – as they call them – house and staying with strangers for a weekend and cooking together has a profound effect,” she says. “Everybody at the end of it swaps phone numbers. What’s so lovely is a lot of the women are still going back to their host’s homes, such terrific connections were forged. And the fabulous thing is it meant so much to the Australians as well … just by learning about the culture of other people.”

Kariuki-Fyfe, who also volunteers for Camden Council’s Cohesive Communities committee, wants more cultural exchanges. “Instead of people staying in their silos, we want refugees and migrants to connect to Australians,” she says. “I would like to see one united community. One united Australia. Let us all be one.”

Horin plans to screen Rosemary’s Way around the country to make different communities more connected by understanding other cultures. That starts with a world premiere in the $10,000 Australian documentary competition in the Sydney Film Festival – the first virtual edition because of the pandemic – that starts on Wednesday.

It’s a cut-down program of 33 films: 10 Australian documentaries, 10 films by European women filmmakers and 13 Australian shorts in the Dendy Awards and Screenability section for filmmakers with a disability. Features will be streamed with pre-recorded introductions and Q&As with filmmakers.

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Festival director Nashen Moodley says it is the smallest staging since the 1950s, with many of the films that he planned to include being held back for festivals and cinema release next year. “I anticipate that given cinema production has halted virtually everywhere in the world, quite a number of the films that we considered and invited for our 2020 edition will play at the 2021 edition,” he says.

So how should viewers approach a virtual festival?

Moodley is naturally encouraging viewers to watch as much as possible. “I’d probably watch things by section,” he says. “I’d watch, for instance, all the Australian documentaries in the competition, then all the short films in the Dendys and the Screenability films perhaps in one session. But if you want to watch one film followed by a feature film each night, you can do that as well.”

There will be free online competition, with the festival also partnering with SBS On Demand for screenings of 40 favourites from years past from June 10 to July 10 and the St Kilda Film Festival screening shorts from June 12 to 20. For details and tickets, selling individually or in bundles, go to www.sff.org.au.

Other documentary highlights

The Weather Diaries: Explores the future for the director’s daughter amid threats of climate change and mass extinction. Director: Kathy Drayton.

The Weather Diaries.Credit:Sydney Film Festival

The Skin of Others: Portrait of Aboriginal WWI soldier Douglas Grant’s life, starring the late Balang T. E. Lewis. Director: Tom Murray.

Descent: Follows a daring professional ice free-diver, who started after debilitating sexual trauma. Director: Nays Baghai.

The Plastic House: An experimental take on memory and healing from a young Cambodian-Australian woman. Director: Allison Chhorn.

A Hundred Years of Happiness: A young woman in rural Vietnam prepares to migrate to South Korea for an arranged marriage. Director: Jakeb Anhvu.

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