A low hum echoes across the floor of Elco Apparel in Dunedin. Everyone is focused on their work and the only sound is of needles repetitively punching through fabric, garments sliding across sewing tables and being adjusted under the needle, scissors slicing material, and occasionally a soft tap on the foot pedal to activate a sewing machine.

The buzz of sewing machines were new to Manahel, but she’s become very familiar with the sound since starting training as a machinist. It is a sound she has learnt to appreciate, one that reminds her how safe she is in New Zealand, away from the noise of bombs in Syria.

Manahel is a single mother who fled the war in Syria with her three young children. After living in Lebanon for nearly two years, the family was resettled in Dunedin three years ago. Life in New Zealand, and work in Elco Apparel’s workroom, has been life-changing for Manahel and her family. Manahel is emotional when she speaks of how her life has changed.

“It’s nice, safe, quiet, and with many friendly people. And Dunedin is such a nice city. I’m happy here,” says Manahel with a beautiful smile.

Initially Manahel focused on learning English, reaching an impressive level in a short amount of time. She then approached New Zealand Red Cross to help her find employment. Red Cross’ Pathways to Employment team in Dunedin and around the country work with former refugees like Manahel to support them in their career path. When clients are work-ready, the team actively looks for suitable jobs. This is how Manahel met Jane, Manager of Earth Sea Sky Manager in Christchurch, which owns Elco Apparel in Dunedin. 

“We needed more machinists and unfortunately in New Zealand, our industry hasn’t been well supported and there is not the industry-base there used to be for training,” explains Jane.

“So we advertised and we didn’t have a great deal of success. We were also aware that for our future success, we needed to have young people and so we had conversations with Red Cross. They didn’t have any trained machinists available, but Manahel was suggested to us.”

Jane and her team were inspired by Nisa, a Wellington-based ethical underwear company started by a former Red Cross volunteer which employs former refugees as seamstresses. They understood a trained machinist was not available, so they would have to train someone themselves. After meeting Manahel, tasting her delicious homebaking and answering her many questions about the machines they knew immediately she was a great fit for the team and that training her would be worth the effort.

“Honestly, I don’t know how I did with these big machines, I had never used them. The first time I came to the workshop, I was so surprised and wondered, 'Oh my God, how am I going to work with these big machines, I have never seen these before?',” says Manahel.

Despite having to learn how to use these machines alongside a whole vocabulary specific to sewing, Manahel has been picking up the ins and outs of being a machinist very quickly.

“It’s been outstanding, in more ways than we could ever have imagined. She slotted immediately into our team: she’s an amazing worker, she’s picked up skills phenomenally quickly!, says Jane.

“Here we work on a percentage basis, so we hope that if you can get within 80% of the time that is set for a particular process, then we’re doing very well. Manahel has reached that within three months of being here, which is extraordinary.”

Tania who works very closely with Manahel, says she has exceeded all expectations.

“She’s learnt more than any other machinist in this short amount of time. Everything we’ve put into Manahel, we get twice as much,” shares Tania.

This is the first job Manahel has ever had, in Syria she maintained her home and supported her kids. Finding work in New Zealand has meant becoming more independent and it has brought a lot of joy to her children too.

“With this job, I feel like I am doing something good in life. And my children are so happy. They came to the workshop and had a very nice time here. They know all the team and the team knows them. Today, my son cried because he wanted to come to the workshop with me,” Manahel laughs.

“My children say that this place is my family!”

Manahel almost agrees with her children: she has found a family at Elco Apparel. Her colleagues have supported her and her family well above what was expected.

“The team has rallied around Manahel well beyond the team environment. That’s added something that is very special,” Jane says. “March 15 had a huge effect on Manahel and [her colleagues] organised a lovely lunch on the Saturday at the garden with everyone’s families. And they’re also helping with basic things at home, like sorting her heating.”

“She’s become an important part of the team here. Her smile is magical and we hope she knows she’s got a long future here with us.”

For Manahel’s colleagues who are working with her daily, Manahel is an inspiration. Her journey, her attitude in life and her warm personality has deeply impacted her team.

“I love working with Manahel because she is so friendly, so humble and she has so much courage." says Shirley, another of Manahel’s colleague.

"And that’s what I love the most about her: the fact that she’s come here from a different country to New Zealand with her children and she just gets on with it and does it so well."She makes me cry! Talking about her courage makes me cry because there is no way I am anything like that. That’s what I admire in her."

Get involved

Many former refugees like Manahel are keen to get into work soon after they arrive in New Zealand. Our Pathways to Employment team works with employers across the country to find suitable candidates, matching skills and personalities. They can support the process with language training, induction and job interview. If you think you may have job opportunities for former refugees in your business, get in touch with our team