Working in the kitchens of Malaysia, Thass learnt to cook a range of dishes, full of flavour and traditional ingredients. It’s a little different from the Kiwi cuisine he now cooks, in his role as demi-chef at a classic Kiwi restaurant and pub in Wellington.

Originally from Sri Lanka, Thass was forced to flee his country, escaping a violent civil war between the government and an armed ethnic insurgency. Working where he could, he sought refuge in Malaysia and Indonesia as he searched for a safe, permanent home. His journey wasn’t easy, and he faced many disappointments.

Pursuing a dream

Finally, years after he left his homeland, Thass received the call he had been waiting for – he had been offered a permanent home in New Zealand under the refugee quota.

Thass arrived in Lower Hutt about a year ago. Although there was a lot to learn in his new community, he was keen to begin working as soon as possible. He was put in touch with Alan, an employer liaison with New Zealand Red Cross’ Pathways to Employment programme.

The programme helps people from refugee backgrounds, like Thass, plan their career goals and find work in New Zealand.

During their conversation, Thass told Alan he wanted to continue working in the culinary industry. Alan was happy to help Thass on his journey, although he admits the 33-year-old didn’t need much support.

“He was very motivated – he knew he wanted to be a chef and he had a dream,” Alan says. “It was just a matter of finding that opportunity.”

Soon after their first meeting, Thass was accepted for a six week training programme at the Shepherds Arms. The training is designed to help recruits learn essential industry skills through practical work experience.

After only five weeks in the programme, the restaurant offered Thass a fulltime position.

Four months later, Thass has worked his way up from kitchenhand to demi-chef, and is a valued member of the Shepherds Arms team. A typical shift sees him preparing for service, plating food and cooking dishes when the head chef is busy.

Language is not a barrier for getting a job … If you get there and prove yourself, then you will get a permanent, full time job. From the time I started to work until now, I have learned three years’ worth of English in conversation.

Although language is often seen as a barrier to employment for new arrivals, Thass - who taught himself English - insists this is not always the case. As well as of completing English classes, he believes the most important thing former refugees can do is to use their skills to find work, picking up the language as they go.

For now, Thass is continuing to work towards his dream. He plans to open a Malaysian restaurant or takeaway kitchen of his own, using the skills he developed along his journey, along with those he has learnt at the Shepherds Arms.

Thass says he has appreciated the support of the Pathways to Employment team as he worked to secure a job. When asked if he would recommend the programme to other former refugees, he doesn’t hesitate.

“Definitely,” he says.