Ralitsa Dimitrova hails from Bulgaria in eastern Europe, where it wasn’t “totally unfamiliar” to come across someone of African descent.
“And I just love the African community because of its vibrancy, because of its openness, because of its hospitality, because of its warmth,” she says.
“And the hugs. I love the hugs.”
She now lives in Gungahlin with her husband, and has been overwhelmingly voted a ‘Friend of Africa’ for all she means to the local African-Australian community in what’s regarded as Australia’s fastest growing multicultural district.
Every year, ‘Celebration of African-Australians’ invites nominations for a title that acknowledges the many ways non-Africans contribute to their communities.
The not-for-profit organisation runs several regular events in Canberra, including for the multicultural and Australia Day festivals, all designed to promote African culture and crush negative stereotypes.
The group has named a ‘Friend of Africa’ every year since 2015, and this year’s choice was easy.
“Ralitsa was always there – supporting, contributing. Her moral support has been outstanding,” Celebration of African-Australians national director Charles Croker says.
“And so, this year, when we had the awards and received the nominations, everybody mentioned this woman who comes to all our events with her husband, even those who didn’t know her name.”
Ralitsa is a public servant within the Federal Government, but also volunteers her time as vice-president of the Gungahlin Community Council (GCC). Self confessed as “community-driven”, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I saw things that I thought could be better.”
She traces her first heart-to-heart contact with the local African community back to a multicultural event in August 2019, when she spoke to the group from the perspective of a female migrant.
“We just connected instantly,” she says.
Gungahlin helped too.
“Gungahlin is a very different district compared to the rest of Canberra. Being a migrant, it is pretty challenging to find my own tribe from my own nationality, but moving to Gungahlin … I found my tribe.
“I realised the enjoyment comes from the diversity, because you can always learn something from a different person.”
Ralitsa was named a ‘Friend of Africa’ at a ceremony on 30 September, completely surprised.
“My name was announced, and all of a sudden, a crowd came out of nowhere. I just turned around to see a bunch of around 30 people taking photos. They know me, but I don’t know them.”
Gungahlin is a melting pot of cultures, not least of African cultures, according to Charles.
“I’ve told people, for you to really understand who is running the show in Gungahlin, go to the parks in Moncrief, Taylor and Yerrabi Pond, and look at the demographic,” he says.
“You hardly see a `normal Aussie’ in these parts.”
Ralitsa puts some of this down to the design of the district. Gungahlin was only officially launched as the fourth town of the ACT in 1991, when mid-sized houses on big blocks trended towards higher-density living where residents were a pebble’s throw from each other.
“Back in their countries, people have a different sense of community,” Ralitsa says.
“They want to be close to each other. And because it’s so important for them to preserve their language, and the only way to do that is to practise it by being close to one another.”
Property prices in Gungahlin were also lower in those early years, favouring the tight financial position of many migrants.
Now she’s officially a ‘Friend of Africa’, Ralitsa commits to attending even more cultural events.
“That’s for sure. It doesn’t change that much, but it does change a lot to be acknowledged like this. I didn’t expect it.”