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06 November 2019

When Romina Fujii spoke, people listened.

A strong, but softly spoken Torres Strait Islander woman, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, she led by putting others first, and devoted her life to the health and wellbeing of her people.

Romina Fujii served the community and engaged in advocacy at the highest level across a range of spheres including education, women’s rights, heritage preservation and health, enabling her to build bridges between communities, cultures and generations to nurture a positive vision for the future of the Torres Strait.

Born on Badu Island in 1943, Romina’s first language was Kala Lagau Ya. Her family moved to Thursday Island before her final year of formal schooling, Year 7, where she mastered two new languages, English and Creole. At the age of 17, Romina realised a childhood ambition to be a nurse. She trained as an enrolled nurse at the hospital on Thursday Island and spent almost 20 years in the profession. Following her nursing career, Romina continued to foster the health and wellbeing of her people through a myriad of community service roles, championing measures to improve care for the elderly and people with disabilities, and provide better support for victims of domestic violence.

When her four children started school, education became another focal point for her energies. Romina joined the P&C and began exploring additional ways to improve educational opportunities for Torres Strait Islander students. Upon realising the region lacked a crucial voice in the national education policy arena, she helped to form the Torres Strait Islander Regional Education Committee, said James Cook University, (JCU) Pro Vice-Chancellor Indigenous Education and Strategy, Professor Martin Nakata.

“She and others initiated the first Torres Strait Islander education policy, which stimulated a lot of interest and went on to inform the inaugural national education policy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander education in 1989, which is still setting priorities for Indigenous education,” said Professor Nakata.

Romina later helped to establish the Thursday Island TAFE, which she managed from 2000-2004. Throughout her life, Romina’s respect for cultural heritage and its ongoing ability to strengthen her people, fuelled her efforts to incorporate Torres Strait Islander values and customs in mainstream education and health.

In recent years, Romina had turned her attention to health research; building capacity in the community to investigate big questions and come up with answers that would work in the Torres Strait.

“She had a commitment to providing services by islanders, for islanders, actually on the islands,” explained Pam Stronach, Director of Academic Quality and Strategy, in JCU’s Division of Tropical Health and Medicine.

While many might have been tempted to scale back their commitments in the lead up to retirement, Romina had no hesitation in volunteering her wealth of skills and experience to assist JCU in developing its Torres Strait education and research initiatives to grow health education and health research capacity in the Torres Strait region.

These initiatives included the JCU Health Sciences Torres Strait Consultative Committee, established in 2005, the JCU Torres Strait Health Sciences Research Subcommittee, established in 2018, and supporting culturally-relevant and appropriate development of the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine (AITHM) Clinical Research and Training Facility on Thursday Island.

Officially opened in 2018, the $6.63 million facility is supporting research into health issues of major concern in the Torres Strait region, including tuberculosis, diabetes, parasites and mosquitoes that transmit dengue and Zika.

Romina’s death at the age of 75, on 22 May 2019, “has left us with the challenge and the opportunity to maintain her vision and build upon her legacy,” said Peter Westwood, AITHM Head of Operations.

““The amount of effort she put in behind the scenes to ensure people stayed engaged was just incredible. She was a quiet powerhouse.”

JCU Deputy Vice Chancellor, Ian Wronski and Professor Malcolm McDonald, Director, JCU Capacity Strengthening Initiative, echoed his view.

 “She undertook a huge amount of community engagement and negotiated the politics in a way that few people can,” said Professor Wronski.

“She was determined, wise and dignified. She really listened to people. She asked critical questions and showed that she valued peoples’ responses,” added Professor McDonald. “She championed research as a critical way of providing the evidence to make changes that matter for the people of the Torres Strait.”

AITHM Director Professor Louis Schofield also paid tribute to Romina’s human touch and determination.

 “She was quiet, but she commanded respect because she knew what she was doing and got things done. I thought her greatest strength was her understanding of people, combined with her ability to take an issue and see it through,’ he said.

Romina promoted educational pathways for young Torres people and frequently asked,  ‘how can we get the community happier, healthier, more qualified, with better prospects going forward?’ said Mr Westwood.

 Culture drove everything she did, observed former Torres Strait Regional Councillor, Phillemon Mosby,

“She understood first and foremost her spiritual and cultural obligation to her ancestors, to today’s Elders, and to the future of her children's children. She was very humble, but if people weren't aware or didn't have a great understanding or appreciation of islander values, culture and customs, she wouldn't fail to ring the bell and say ‘hold on, you are here to deliver a service, but it must be delivered in a culturally appropriate and sensitive way’,” he said.

Romina’s standing within Torres Strait island communities, and her ability to communicate effectively with people from all walks of life, enabled her to convey simple, steadfast messages aimed at improving the future for her people.

 “Her personal commitment provided a beacon of hope and inspiration to the community and more so to me as a younger Torres Strait Island woman,” said Ella Kris, Chair, Torres and Cape Hospital and Health Service Board. Romina Fujii possessed a long-term vision for the future of her people. The seeds that she has sown will continue to bear fruit.

The last words in this tribute belong to Romina’s work colleagues and acquaintances, as shared by JCU Senior Project Officer, Indigenous Education and Research Centre, Linda Ah Mat:.

“She was an integral part of many people’s lives and the local Thursday Island community – chairing meetings, providing direction, creating ideas, seeking advice, sharing stories. It is hoped that Romina’s passion and vision are reflected in the stories we share with others, including the upcoming generations – she would have loved that. More importantly, it is hoped that some of her ideas are turned into outcomes that achieve meaningful impact for the people and community she really cared about.”

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