There is something about Compassion Soup Kitchen in Wellington which makes you feel welcome as soon as you walk in the door. From the warm, smiling staff, to the many different people who visit each day, the delicious smell of freshly-cooked food and the happy buzz of the dining room, the Kitchen is a homey hang-out for Wellingtonians experiencing challenges or simply looking for company.

In the kitchen is where some of the magic of this place happens. From outside, a noisy din of trays sliding, water running, fast chopping and laughing can be heard. Inside, a team of women is actively preparing to cook hundreds of meals.

On the menu tonight is cheesy pasta and salad, prepared, as always with Suzanne*, with special elements from her Colombian heritage, including “un poco de amor” (some love).

Suzanne is a former refugee from Colombia who fled to Ecuador with her three children in 2010. She has been building a new life in New Zealand for more than four years.

“Since the day we landed in New Zealand, I have enjoyed everything that has happened in my life,” shares Suzanne.

“I’ve had a very difficult and complicated life before; I have been abused since I was a little child, from the time I was in Colombia until I was in Ecuador. Being in New Zealand has been an experience like being reborn, because we had many problems prior to coming here.”

Meaningful work

For many former refugees like Suzanne, finding employment plays an important part in feeling at home in New Zealand. Employment offers more than just financial security, it also brings hope, pride and a sense of giving back to the country which welcomed them.

New Zealand Red Cross’ Pathways to Employment programme supports new Kiwis on their career journey and helps hundreds of people every year to find work. The Wellington team helped Suzanne to find a job which worked with her daily English classes and combined her cooking skills and passion to help people.

“This job absolutely delights me because I love cooking, I love food, I love giving a gift back to people, and the gift that they give in return is their smile,” says Suzanne.

“I like helping, because I can help people and give people a lift, help them the same way I was helped. This is why I like coming here [to Compassion Soup Kitchen].”

“My family has been thoroughly blessed by everybody who has been involved in our life in New Zealand. From the Red Cross volunteers to the staff and the people here, we are truly blessed.“

Suzanne cooking for her community.

Working through COVID-19 Alert Level 4

Suzanne became an essential worker during Alert Level 4, as Compassion Soup Kitchen was allowed to keep their doors open. Suzanne’s shifts at the kitchen increased to support the rise of numbers of people coming through every day.

“Since the lockdown, we have split into two groups. We have been working with great care, wearing protection and taking all the precautions. Obviously, there’s still a need to carry on with the service because there are many vulnerable people to serve and there has been an increase in demand over the last few weeks,” explains Suzanne.

While Suzanne and her team normally cook around 125 meals every day, recently that number has climbed to 185. Suzanne has enjoyed coming to work and being there for Kiwis in need during this tough time, saying it has brought purpose to her life.

“I’m very happy to be helping. In fact, they are helping me, because they give me purpose and help keep my mind off coronavirus. I think it’s a beautiful way to give,” says Suzanne.

Suzanne is one of the many former refugees who has had a difficult journey to New Zealand, but an incredible strength to persevere. At the close of another busy but fulfilling day in the kitchen, Suzanne reflects:

“My message is for women, women who have had a really hard life, who have got stains in their past – never stop dreaming that your life will become better. Your life will be better, just don’t stop dreaming.”

*Name changed to protect privacy. ‘Suzanne’ was the founder of Compassion Soup Kitchen and an inspiring woman to the Suzanne of this story.

How you can help

New Zealand Red Cross supports former refugees as they settle in New Zealand throughout our Pathways to SettlementPathways to Employment and Refugee Trauma Recovery programmes, but communities play an important part in making new Kiwis feel at home. Here’s how you can help: