It’s a quiet and sunny afternoon in the suburb of Epsom in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. Autumn leaves are scattered everywhere, brightening the neighbourhood with an abundance of amber and scarlet. Down one of these colourful streets you will find the Elizabeth Knox Home and Hospital  – a community made up of those who need a bit of help and those who care for them.

Today, the place is busy – the carpark is almost full, with several vehicles constantly driving in and out. Staff and volunteers of Elizabeth Knox Home and Hospital interact with local residents, the elderly, and the disabled, bringing a smile and warmth to what is already lively place.

One of these people is Najmo Mohamed, a twenty-year-old caregiver, or, as they call them at Elizabeth Knox, a Care Partner. The young woman interacts with everyone; residents, their families, and staff members alike. She spreads kindness, and, despite the busy atmosphere,  radiates calmness wherever she goes.

Najmo’s serene smile and cool approach to her role are the results of her unique upbringing, one that is rooted in compassion and humanity.

This is Najmo’s story: a journey from Somalia to Aotearoa.

Looking into her roots

Najmo was born in Somalia, a country in the Horn of Africa. Najmo’s family moved to Ethiopia when she was very young and at the age of three, they were able to join her grandmother in New Zealand through the Refugee Family Reunification programme.

“We were struggling in Ethiopia, so my grandmother, who had been resettled in New Zealand as a refugee, fought for us to join her,” says Najmo. “We came to New Zealand for a better life, for a better education.”

Najmo grew up in Auckland with her parents and four siblings. She recalls it being a pleasant childhood, even if things were not always easy:

“Growing up was hard because my parents didn’t speak English. They were struggling to fit in to the culture, but it was nice because we had a lot of Somali community members around.

“You can see you are different, but then you learn to respect everyone with a different culture and ethnicity, and they give it back to you. You also learn not to listen to others who don’t give you that respect back.”

Najmo’s eyes light up when she talks about her grandmother, whom she is very eager to talk about.

“We have a big family,” she explains. “Everybody is close, we all come together and I used to always go to my grandma’s house. I still do – she is 98 years old! But she has got short-term memory loss and forgets things, so she still sees me as a little girl.”

Her grandmother would often regale her with stories from Somalia, talking about how life was for Najmo’s family back then.

“She used to tell me stories – I used to always go to her and would look after her. I would dress her up and show her styles,” shares Najmo.

“I am very close to my grandma. That’s what inspired me to be an aged care worker.”

Growing up, she favoured spending time with her aunts and the elders, listening to their stories and helping them with various tasks. These memories helped Najmo realise that aged care work could be her ideal profession.

One of her school teachers in Auckland encouraged her to follow this passion, and pointed out what qualifications she would need. After high school, Najmo went on to complete her Level 3 Certificate in Health and Wellbeing .

With certificates in hand, Najmo started to apply for jobs. She quickly realised that it doesn’t matter how passionate you are – finding work is an extremely difficult task.

“It was hard to find a job because I didn’t have work experience in age care. It was very hard, so I got help from Red Cross.”

The perfect match

New Zealand Red Cross is the primary provider of community refugee settlement in Aotearoa. One of the key services provided to former refugees at Red Cross is the Pathways to Employment programme, which supports job seekers with a refugee background into work. The team also works with employers to identify and fill skills gaps in the workplace in the hope of matching them with prospective employees based on their business requirements.

Red Cross really helped me with my CV and build my confidence, and coached me for my interview, because I had never done interviews before,” says Najmo. “They put me in a lot of interviews in different places and really gave me that confidence I needed.”

While coaching Najmo, Red Cross got in touch with Sophie Dickinson, the HR Administrator at Elizabeth Knox, about the potential to work together.

“I think our ethos here aligns really well with Red Cross,” says Sophie. “We are here for the community, so why not open our communities up to each other and find pathways to employment for people who would struggle to know the avenues that others know about, or don’t have access to computers and IT systems. Let’s remove some of these barriers and get people into meaningful employment.”

Sophie asked the team at  Red Cross if they had anyone looking for work in aged care. She shared the position description and  Red Cross sent a few applications back to her, including Najmo’s.

"Red Cross sent a bunch of CVs and we added them to the mix of candidates. Najmo’s application stood out, so she was shortlisted and interviewed amongst other candidates who had applied. It was by no mean a fast track to employment – she was in with the others,” says Sophie. “It’s got to be a match for both of us. I’ve got to put the right people into the right place.”

Najmo started working at Elizabeth Knox one week after the interview – her first-ever job.

Sophie Dickinson, the HR Administrator at Elizabeth Knox, and Najmo Mohamed, a Care Partner at Elizabeth Knox.

Working through lockdowns

Less than year into the job, COVID-19 hit. The pandemic had a huge and immediate impact on some of the most vulnerable members of our communities, including the residents Najmo supports at Elizabeth Knox. The facility closed its doors in early March 2020, a few weeks before the rest of New Zealand went into lockdown.

The usual busyness of Knox was suddenly halted. COVID-19 and the multiple lockdowns imposed on Auckland meant that the care home had to adapt to the threat of the virus and restrict the number of people allowed inside the facility.

Caregivers around the country, including Najmo, played a crucial role during the pandemic. As essential workers, they became the connection between at-risk community members in aged care facilities and their friends or family members who were no longer able to visit.

“I really felt for the residents because they couldn’t see their families. It was our responsibility to keep them connected to their family, so their family could know how they are doing,” says Najmo.

“I felt like I had to come to work because our residents’ families couldn’t. We had a responsibility.”

Najmo took that responsibility very seriously. Along with setting up online calls with residents’ family members, she took people for walks outside for some fresh air and company. Caregivers were key in ensuring people didn’t feel isolated – they suddenly had a lot more meaning, purpose and responsibility.

“I really enjoyed coming to work each day during lockdown. I really felt like I had something important to do. That’s when I felt like an essential worker.”

Her outstanding work ethic is acknowledged by her workplace, too.

“Najmo is gentle. The skillsets that she brings with her are perhaps not typically what you would see in a Care Partner, but that’s what we’re looking for here,” says Sophie. “Someone who is gentle, who is kind, who just gets in and gets the job done – doesn’t make a fuss. Someone you can trust. You know she will do a good job and get stuck in.”

Essential Kiwi Legends

Ahead of World Refugee Day on 20 June, New Zealand Red Cross is acknowledging the important contribution made during COVID-19 Alert Level changes from essential workers with a refugee background. Find out more about the Essential Kiwi Legends campaign