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In amongst a sea of greenery at JS Ewers is Naw Ellis. She’s deftly trimming leaves off tomato vines in one of the company’s many glasshouses. Removing the old leaves and trusses from the plants is a weekly task for staff at the vegetable growers to keep the produce healthy.
Based near Nelson, JS Ewers is one of the leading suppliers of fresh produce in New Zealand. Naw Ellis has worked for the company since October 2017 and is one of JS Ewers’ 150 permanent employees.
She came to New Zealand as a refugee with her husband and four children in 2016, and since then she has been focused one thing, finding work.
“I wanted to work in New Zealand so I could get a feel for the work here,” she says. “Being on a benefit is not particularly good for my family situation so I wanted to work to get more income and experience.”
Naw Ellis was forced to flee her home when she was only 21 and moved to a refugee camp in Thailand. It was here that she met her husband, got married, and had her children.
Life as a refugee in Thailand wasn’t good. She was one of more than 97,000 refugees in the country, living in nine refugee camps. Most are from ethnic minorities in Myanmar and have been fleeing across the border for nearly three decades. Life is limited to the camps and there is little hope for their future.
This changed for Naw Ellis and her family when they were accepted for resettlement by New Zealand in 2016. She approached Red Cross about finding work after hearing about the Pathways to Employment programme. The team helped her find some volunteer work in the horticultural industry and then to meet the team at JS Ewers. She was quickly offered a role with the company.
“She was doing a good job and always willing to help people,” says Geoff Lamont, a grower manager at JS Ewers. “If she could see you struggling she’d always jump in to help you, which was great.”
The company often takes on staff through Pathways to Employment during the summer months when business ramps up. Many of them, like Naw Ellis, are also kept on in permanent roles afterwards.
“We want staff who have good attention to detail and people who can work with others,” says Geoff. “We would really struggle without these staff.”
Naw Ellis is also continuing her English classes. During her first six months, the company supported her to attend English lessons during work time that incorporated workplace vocabulary.
“Working here has really improved my life,” she says. “I do English class in the evening now to keep improving my language, that is very important for me to carry on in the country.”
While Naw Ellis isn’t sure what the future holds for her, she is very focused on doing the best she can in her current role.
“In my heart I want to continue working here,” she says, smiling broadly.
How to help
Red Cross works with hundreds of former refugees across Aotearoa who can bring a diverse range of skills into Kiwi businesses. If you’re looking for staff or would like to know more about the programme, get in touch with the team here.