• December 17, 2012

In A Man’s World

The question, “Where did you grow up?” is one which a majority of people can reply with a basic answer but for Sika Kerry (OAM), it brings back a whirlwind of memories revolving around a time when her life was in a fragile state. “It is very complicated when people ask that question as my family background is Russian but I was born in former Yugoslavia.”

As we sit in Sika’s sleek, contemporary home overlooking the Maribyrnong River, she recounts in fine detail about her childhood and what it was like growing up during the war. For someone who has been in a high profile position, Sika remains down-to-earth, has an engaging nature and her laugh is certainly infectious. Throughout our conversation, her phone consistently rings which is concrete evidence of a busy life.

Sika’s family fled the 1917 Russian Revolution to Yugoslavia and witnessed the horrors of World War II in Germany after her father, a Russian aristocrat, was jailed by the Nazis. “My father was born in Russia, he fought the communists and was wounded during the revolution. When the Germans invaded Yugoslavia, my father was taken to Germany and underwent forced labour. My mother and I followed him to Germany where my mother didn’t declare that she had a child. All of the women on the train just hid me.”

At 75-years-old, Sika can still recount vividly the turbulent journey of travelling in 1949 on the General William Black and landing on the safe grounds of Australian soil. “I was 11-years-old and it took nearly 27 days. When you’re that age, you are like a whiteboard that hasn’t been written on. The world was a much bigger place.”

It took her a few months to grasp basic English, she said, before she could attend school but Sika flourished. Perhaps showing the survivor resilience of a migrant in Bonegilla, inadvertently contributed towards a career in politics. While her forthright, passionate attitude and self-confidence are characteristic traits which make her a natural born leader. “A pipe in my street was clogged up, I rang the council and no one ever attended the issue which absolutely infuriated me. I was really mad and went to the town hall thinking, what are they doing for these rates we are paying? Then I looked around and there were 15 councillors, not one of them was a woman! I was thinking, is there a law against this?”

Facing a disbelieving male-dominated council, Sika decided to run as councillor in 1972 and lost by a mere 20 votes. She recontested the seat and was voted in. “I told my husband that I wanted to try again to be councillor and as always he supports whatever I do. We met in church when I was fifteen years old, we fell madly in love, were married just after my 17th birthday and had two beautiful kids.”

In 1972, Sika was the first woman in 113 years to be elected to Footscray City Council. “They were all falling apart and worrying about what toilet I was going to use. A cartoon was published of all the male councillors standing around a beer keg and a little lady offers me a cup of tea and says, ‘Have a cup of tea, dearie’. Perhaps, funniest of all was when someone questioned me about whether I would be offended by male swearing. My answer? I can swear in four different languages. Those were the ancient days,” she laughed.

Sika made a number of significant changes as she set up one of the first branch libraries in Yarraville, The Norfolk Street Child Care Centre, helped to establish Footscray’s first Migrant Resource Centre in 1981, became a life governor of the Western General Hospital and was the first female on the Western Region Council of Technical Education.“I gave some pretty passionate speeches in council. The attitude was that only bored housewives work and leave their children in care. No one works for the meat industry dismembering sheep or works in a freezer room because they are bored!”

A memorabilia of Sika’s extensive achievements are lined in her study, there are too many awards to mention. Since leaving council in 1977, she was employed as a social worker and has helped countless individuals, including victims of sexual assault. One of her most prestigious career highlights was in 2008 when Sika was awarded on the Victorian Honour Roll of Women in 2008 by Julia Gillard.

Peeling back the layers of her life, it is apparent that she is a woman of passionate convictions, possesses a firey attitude and sense of humour which are all of the traits which made her stand so tall as a pioneer in a man’s world. Sika Kerry is a woman to look up to and is definitely no wallflower.

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