Canberra Citizen of the Year


Frederika Elsje Steen (born 1944)

Freddie Steen, right, with Member for Canberra, Ros Kelly, November 1989

SOURCE: Canberra Times, 2 November 1989, page 5. 

Ten days after Frederika's birth her family were running for their lives. Her father was active in the Dutch resistance and had a price on his head. They were hiding with a Dutch farming family at Avercost when Frederika was born on 2 September 1944, but nappies on the clothes line alerted a collaborator. The farmer overheard plans to report them to the authorities and the Steens were rushed to safety. The two families maintained a lifelong connection, and Frederika's profound sense of gratitude to these strangers influenced much of her later life. 

Her father worked in municipal government but was denied promotion after the war and at least until 1947 carried a pistol for protection. Sadness and bitterness was common among former resistance families, and in the late 1940s a group of eight families resolved to emigrate. Other countries were considered but two members were sent to investigate Australia. Having found an idyllic area at Kingston, south of Hobart, they bought about 10 acres and in 1950 the first families settled there. The men registered a building company whose name proclaimed that henceforth they were Australians –  The Australian Building Corporation, Kingston, Tasmania.

The Steens arrived in November 1950: Jan Thomas Steen (born 1912), his wife Elsina Aaltje (born 1915), two boys aged 7 and 4, and Frederika Elsje known as Freddie. Another girl was born in Tasmania. By the time Freddie went to the local school its pupils were overwhelmingly Dutch although almost all spoke English. This Dutch preference for assimilation meant that when the children later went back to Holland they were unable to carry on adult conversations with their relatives. Freddie also believed that denying cultural background was a waste of resources, and in Canberra she helped establish the Dutch Language and Cultural School to counter the loss.

For Freddie it was a wonderful life at Kingston, with beach and bush close by and a teacher who not only taught the regulation subjects but also Australian poetry and natural history. The decision to emigrate as a group had also provided a stable, familiar community, something that Freddie later recognised as seriously lacking for most migrants. She worked both professionally and in her own time to help migrants adjust to their new life while retaining their cultural identity.

Freddie graduated from the University of Tasmania with a Bachelor of Arts and a Diploma of Education, then taught in Tasmania and Canada. Returning to Hobart she applied to the Public Service and was offered a position with the Commonwealth Department of Education in Canberra where her work included developing and administering the new Adult Migrant Education Program for the ACT and Queanbeyan. She introduced day time English classes for women and, having worked with the Indo-China Refugee Association that assisted migrants to find housing and employment, she persuaded the Department to set up a pre-emigration language and cultural orientation program.

In 1983 Freddie took six months long service leave to teach in the Australian Orientation Program at one of Thailand's largest refugee transit camps at Phanat Nikhom, southeast of Bangkok. It was a life-changing experience that gave her a clearer understanding of what her basic values were, and from then on she became an increasingly vocal advocate for refugee rights. On her return she was awarded Canberran of the Year.

Also in 1983 Freddie was appointed the Migrant Women's Coordinator with the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. In 1993 she was appointed head of the ACT's second Multicultural Advisory Council, having also served on the first in 1980-1983 with Edna Hopkins, the 1980 Canberran of the Year.

Freddie spent 17 years in the Department of Immigration, moving to Brisbane as Director of Settlement Services; her last position was Chief Migration Officer in the Australian Embassy in Berlin. After retiring in 2001 she volunteered at Brisbane's Romero Centre refugee support and advocacy hub where she  participated in the campaign which helped bring an end to the Pacific Solution implemented in 2001 by the Howard government.

In 2011 artist Kate Durham mounted an exhibition at the State Library of Queensland, entitled "Siev-X. ... and some were saved". Freddie's story 'From across the sea' was included in the accompanying booklet.

Quite late in life Freddie met her partner Art and his three daughters. They live in Brisbane where Freddie is a familiar sight at the local shopping centre, wearing a polo shirt she embroidered with the slogan “Seeking asylum is legal”.

Awards and Distinctions

  • 1984 Canberran of the Year
  • 2001 Centenary Medal
  • 2003 Paul Cullen Humanitarian Award
  • 2007 Pride of Australia Fair Go Medal
  • 2014 Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom award
  • 2014 Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for services to refugees and asylum seekers in a voluntary capacity through organisations including Brisbane’s Romero Centre, Multicultural Development Association and the Indo-China Refugee Association

Select Bibliography

1978 'NON-EXISTENT DUTCHMEN The 'assimilated' but unusual Dutch.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 13 May, p. 8, viewed 14 January, 2016,

1984 'Canberra Festival's day of honouring skills, uplifting singing Honour for all unpaid Canberra workers.', The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), 12 March, p. 7, viewed 20 December, 2015,

1988 'The spirit of multiculturalism: Frederika Steen' in Rudduck, Loma, A celebration of women in the growth of Canberra, Australian Federation of Business and Professional Women ACT Division

2010 'How Frederika Steen's own journey inspired her work with migrants. Conversations with Richard Fidler', ABC, broadcast Monday 15 February 2010,

2014 Freddie Steen: asylum limbo “hell on earth”, in Journey, the online journal of the Uniting Church in Australia Queensland Synod, 5 March 2014, viewed 14 January 2016,

See other Canberra Citizens of the Year.