TO striking early moment in the warm, humanistic documentary Rosemary’s Way depicts a group of women standing on a grassy hill in triangular formation beneath a milky blue sky. They are migrants to Australia, coming from a diverse array of backgrounds, some having dealt with deeply traumatic experiences, but all their stories are united by the person they’re standing behind: the inspiring Rosemary Kariuki.
Rosemary’s Way captures the various initiatives for migrant and refugee women living in Australia run by or with assistance from Kariuki, who this year won an Australian of the Year Local Hero award in recognition of her ongoing extracurricular work.
“It was a beautiful moment,” Kariuki, 60, tells Guardian Australia, reminiscing about that scene on the hill. “All the women’s problems were wiped out there. They didn’t want to leave the hill; they had each other, and the fresh air. “
The film arrives at an opportune time, according to its director, Ros Horin, given our recent collective experiences with the pandemic. “We’ve all missed community, friends and connections. We’ve all had the experience of isolation, ”she says,“ which these women go through all the time. I feel it’s the right time for this story about bridge building, connection and simple acts of kindness. “
Employed as a multicultural community liaison officer for the Parramatta police, Kariuki’s initiatives include the social event the African Women’s Dinner Dance, the African Village Market (which helps migrants and refugees start their own businesses) and a cultural exchange program between women refugees and migrants and Australian country women.
Fleeing conflict-torn Kenya in 1999, where tribal clashes made the country a “very dangerous” place, Kariuki arrived in Australia knowing little about the country other than “kangaroos and merino sheep”. It wasn’t easy in the beginning, she says, because “I come from a very large family”, then all of a sudden “I came here and was alone”.
Looking for something to do, Kariuki “began volunteering to help elderly women, chatting with lonely seniors in the nursing home, visiting them on the weekend … It was good for them and it was good for me.”
She started several initiatives and joined others, including The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, a stage show starring herself and three other African women which explored the harrowing trauma in their lives, and was the subject of Horin’s previous documentary.
Horin recalls that Kariuki “was always multitasking” during the making of The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe and easily “the busiest person in the room”. When she told Horin about her cultural exchange program, the director was intrigued and asked to tag along.
Accompanying Kariuki and other migrant women on a trip to the Blue Mountains, Horin met another inspiring person who would become one of the subjects in Rosemary’s Way: Sufia, a woman from Bangladesh who migrated to Australia. Sufia was also trapped in an abusive relationship for 14 years.
“It was the first time she’d ever been out on her own in 20 years, in this country, without a husband or a family,” Horin recalls. “She spoke about how lonely she was. I was so moved. She said: ‘I need to make a friend; I’ve never done that before. I don’t know how to do that. ‘ I thought: my God, there is such need here. Before then I had no real understanding of what isolation could mean. “
There is a “pay it forward” vibe throughout Rosemary’s Way, its optimism apparent before it even begins. The film is preceded by introductory text declaring the film “can play a key role in bringing positivity and hope to people everywhere during 2021 and beyond”, followed by an invitation to audiences to host their own screenings (the website also encourages viewers to grow their own grassroots campaign).
That optimism is shared by Kariuki, who has seen the lives of many women transformed. “When you meet them, the women, they can be broken, they can think it is the end of the world,” she says. “Somebody like Sufia, she was broken but now she helps women in her own community. Women who were broken are now working; are now happy and independent. They say: ‘Rosemary, I am happy again!’ They come up to me on the street and start dancing! “
Kariuki lets out a big, boisterous, infectious laugh, which her friends and colleagues have come to know well.
Horin says she has been delighted by responses to the film so far. “People are coming out of it doing exactly what I hoped they would, and asking how can I get involved and how can I make a difference?”
Kariuki contests: “Let us all stop living in silos. Let us all live together, people from many cultures. Let us all get to know our neighbors. Maybe start a conversation, have a street barbecue. And let us dance more! “
And that big, boisterous, infectious laugh returns.