Mohammad Ghannam was just 10 years old when he made his first pair of shoes.

It was the beginning of something special and, over the next few decades, he hand crafted thousands and thousands of pairs of footwear for clients across his home city of Aleppo.

Then, in 2011, the Syrian war broke out and Aleppo became a battlefield. Mohammad and his wife were forced to abandon their business and flee to Lebanon with their children.

The Ghannam’s spent the next five years living in limbo; Mohammad was unable to work in the footwear industry and accepted odd jobs where he could.

“Life [in Lebanon] was very difficult, I accepted a random job selling stuff from the back of a car but we were persecuted and pushed out of the business so it was difficult to make a living,” he says.

In 2016 the family’s life changed dramatically when they discovered they’d been accepted for resettlement in New Zealand.

Shortly after arriving, Mohammad was connected with the Red Cross Pathways to Employment team to see if his skills could be put to use in his new home city of Dunedin.

Seeing a perfect opportunity, they approached McKinlays Footwear, which is one of the only companies that still manufacture shoes in New Zealand.

Mohammad was taken on a tour of the factory to see if it was similar to the work he’d been doing in Syria and later, as the Christmas rush began for McKinlays Footwear, he was brought in for a trial shift.

Utilising a rare skill set

The basic skills utilised in shoemaking are the same across the world with the biggest differences lying in the types of machinery used in production.

Mohammad says some of the equipment he uses now is more advanced than that he had in Syria but some of it is also less advanced than what he is used to.

The businesses co-owner, Graeme McKinlay, says he is far more concerned about the skills a potential employer has rather than the machinery they can use because those skills are hard to come by in New Zealand.

“Over the past few years we haven’t been able to find someone trained with footwear skills,” says Mr McKinlay.

“It’s very much a lost art in New Zealand, we’re virtually the only footwear manufacturers left. We look for people with good hand-eye coordination and good attention to detail because you only get one chance when you’re putting holes into leather. We also look for people who take a bit of pride in their work.”

As he arrived for his trial, Mohammad was nervous; concerned that he would be rusty after his five years in Lebanon. Those concerns turned out to be unfounded as he impressed everyone that day.

“He was very good in the trial, it was great. It was a real eye opener to see someone who could come in and be productive from day one,” says Mr McKinlay.

Mohammad was also impressed with McKinlays Footwear, saying he was delighted to find a kind and caring team to support him.

Finding fulfilment through employment

For Mohammad, finding employment in his area of expertise has been an integral part of the resettlement process.

“I’ve been in this business for a long time, those five years of discontinuity when I couldn’t work in the industry made me feel like I was suffocating.”

Mohammad still thinks about Syria and follows the news; tears spring to the front of his eyes as talks about images he’d seen on TV the night before.

Despite having a head and heart in two places, he says Dunedin started to feel like home once he started working.

“I feel settled now, especially with all the support I’ve received from the business, Red Cross, and my wife. I feel that I’m settled but there’s more to improve and I’m working on that,” he says.

“I’m very glad and delighted to be back in work and the team here are so kind and caring. I just want them to believe that I have the skills to capitalise on and take it from there.”

How to help

If you’re an employer with an available position, you can contact your local Pathways to Employment team here.