There is a little shop in the centre of Dunedin which brings customers back to the days where residents only shopped in their neighbourhood convenience store to buy local produce and have a yarn with the locals.

Taste Nature is a favourite stop for organic and sustainable products. Its old-fashioned red brick walls, small aisles packed with perfectly presented produce and colourful vegetables take anyone stepping into the shop back in time.

The smell of freshly cooked food and the sound of chopping attracts customers into the café area, which is a popular local hang out.

Not far from the regulars sipping their coffee is a new local resident busy in the kitchen: Nedal Ebrahim. He is quietly preparing delicious Syrian falafels, but behind Nedal’s timid smile is an inspiring tale of courage, hope and perseverance.

This is Nedal Ebrahim’s story.

In the search of safety

The Ebrahim family is one among millions of families who have been caught up in the war in Syria and were forced to flee their home country. When missiles and jet planes approached the capital city of Damascus, where Nedal, his wife and two sons had been living for their entire lives, Nedal knew it was time to go.

“It wasn’t safe for us. All the parties involved in the war were recruiting young people to fight and we didn’t want our sons to be fighting. Then the missiles arrived. We just had to leave,” explains Nedal.

The family never imagined they would be forced to leave everything behind and become refugees searching for safety.

“We only had time to take our papers and we left with the clothes we were wearing that day. We left everything else behind,” shares Nedal.

The family flew to Lebanon in 2013, where they boarded a connecting flight to Thailand. But this was no beautiful holiday destination for the Ebrahim family – arriving in Thailand marked the start of six long and stressful years.

Thousands of refugees like Nedal and his family live in precarious situations in Thailand, in constant fear of being arrested, while unable to access health services or education and without being allowed to work legally.

When Nedal was arrested for the second time and put in jail, the family got in touch with Immigration New Zealand, which had recently offered the Ebrahims resettlement in Aotearoa. The resettlement process was sped up due to safety concerns and the four of them, Nedal, Ebtesam, Saeed and Mohammed finally made it to New Zealand.

“We were lucky to get out when we did, things were getting worse, it was very unsafe for refugees in Thailand,” says Nedal.

“I felt relieved. It was like someone was lost with nothing, and then a gate of hope was opened for us.”

“I was very happy, I saw hope. It was an end for all the suffering we’d gone through, it was hope for a better future, says Ebtesam, Nedal’s wife.

Nedal Ibrahim at Taste Nature.

Finally finding rest

Only when the plane finally took off from Bangkok International Airport did the Ebrahim family finally believe their new lives could begin and that they could be happy.

While Nedal had first heard of New Zealand through the meat that was imported to Syria, Ebtesam knew nothing about Aotearoa, so she did her research.

“I found online that New Zealand was a wonderful and beautiful country with four seasons, and that is never gets too hot or too cold. I also saw that the education was good and most importantly that it is one of the safest countries in the world.”

The family arrived in Auckland in December 2018 and spent their first few months at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre with others who had also fled war, persecution or conflict. Nedal and Ebtesam felt a huge sense of relief to spend their first summer in New Zealand as Kiwis.

“My first day in New Zealand, I felt like a child on his first day at kindergarten, where someone has to hold their hand and take them around. It was a mixture of emotions. They took care of us to the point that we didn’t need to worry about anything,” recalls Nedal.

And for Ebtesam, this meant she no longer needed to be worried about safety and could finally have a proper sleep.

“When I went to bed that first night, I knew I was safe, and that meant I could sleep the whole night without worrying, finally.”

After an in-depth orientation about New Zealand including Kiwi culture, the services and support available and how New Zealand systems works, recent arrivals join their new community in one of the refugee settlement locations around the country. For the Ebrahims, home was Dunedin and, on 15 March 2019, the family finally moved to their new town.

Settling in

For people with refugees backgrounds, finding a job often signals the resumption of normal life in their new home. As with anyone, employment allows former refugees to be more independent, use their knowledge and skills and contribute to their new community.

New Zealand Red Cross understands this, which is why it provides the Pathways to Employment programme to former refugees, no matter how long they have been in the country for. Teams across the New Zealand support them in creating a plan for employment based on their existing skills, availability and goals.

Pathways to Employment teams also utilise their local connections to identify open roles that match profiles of former refugees looking for work. Clinton Chambers, owner of Taste Nature, can attest to this.

“I wanted to support refugees coming to Dunedin. We were looking for kitchenhand roles, so I just contacted Red Cross to ask if they had anyone available.”

Nedal was the right fit and the day Clinton and Nedal met, the contract was signed. 

Nedal's kitchen team at Taste Nature.

That’s why, nowadays, you’ll be most likely to find Nedal in the Taste Nature kitchen. He helps the team with the food preparation for the café, cleans dishes and keeps the food preparation area spotless. Nicknamed ‘the boss’ by his workmates, Nedal is recognised as a great cook and kind-hearted colleague always happy to help.

“They are very friendly and treat me kindly. They try to help me with my English. They help me, as a person and as an employee,” says Nedal.

From the kitchen to the aisle

However, Nedal has recently spent much of his time between the storeroom and the aisles, pushing trolleys full of groceries. During the COVID-19 Alert Level 4 lockdown, Nedal moved from the kitchen to the shop to help restock shelves, as demand for their goods increased.

The grocery in Taste Nature was allowed to stay open and Nedal became an essential worker as a supermarket assistant.

“During lockdown there were no food orders, so I was moved to the shop. I was responsible for making sure nothing was missing on the shelves,” says Nedal.

“The shop is an important part of the community. The shop gave a sense of life to the Dunedin community cause everything else was closed.”

“What I did helping my community during lockdown is only a fraction of what we were given by resettling to New Zealand.”

Essential Worker, supermarket assistant and kitchen hand, Nedal Ebrahim

The lockdown was also an opportunity for Nedal to share his culture and skills with the rest of the Taste Nature team. Back in Syria, Nedal was a chef in a restaurant, so when he cooks Arabic food he is in his element. That’s why, when Taste Nature started providing lunch to all their staff during lockdown, Nedal brought along some of his special food to share.

“We discover that he had this hidden talent with food. We knew he had knife skills, and he one day during lockdown offered falafels to the staff. They are amazing. We started using some his Syrian recipes in the café – bread pockets and falafels,” says Clinton.

Since the café has reopened, Nedal has moved back to the kitchen and, living his new life in Dunedin, is looking forward to the safety and opportunities his city has to offer.

“I felt important as an essential worker. I was proud,” says Nedal with a smile.

Essential Kiwi Legends

All across Aotearoa, thousands of former refugees are doing amazing things in their communities. Some are essential workers who supported Kiwis during the COVID-19 lockdown. These are just a few of those incredible stories.