Essential Kiwi Legend: The Syrian refugee turned Dunedin grocery store worker

Nedal Ebrahim never thought he would be forced to flee his home and start all over again. But now, as a former refugee, supermarket assistant, passionate cook and Covid-19 essential worker, Nedal has become an important and valued member of his new community.

Taste Nature in Dunedin is a favourite stop for organic and sustainable products, its old-fashioned red brick walls, and tight aisles harking back to a time when people shopped at small neighbourhood stores, not giant supermarkets. The smell of freshly cooked food attracts customers to the café area, a popular local hang out.

Not far from the regulars sipping their coffee is a new local resident busy in the kitchen preparing delicious Syrian falafels. Behind his timid smile is an inspiring tale of courage, hope and perseverance.

This is Nedal Ebrahim’s story.

Nedal Ebrahim at Taste Nature, Dunedin (Photo: Elodie Berthe)

In the search of safety

The Ebrahim family is among millions who have been caught up in the war in Syria and 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, he 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.”

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.”

In 2013 the family flew to Lebanon, where they boarded a connecting flight to Thailand. But this was no holiday for the Ebrahim family, whose arrival 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 jailed the family contacted Immigration New Zealand, which had recently offered the Ebrahims resettlement in Aotearoa. The process was sped up due to safety concerns and the four of them, Nedal, Ebtesam, Saeed and Mohammed finally made it to New Zealand in December 2018.

“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.”

Ebtesam, Nedal’s wife, says she was “very happy” to find safety in New Zealand. “I saw hope. It was an end for all the suffering we’d gone through, it was hope for a better future.”

Finally finding rest

Only when the plane finally took off from Bangkok International Airport did the Ebrahim family believe their new lives could begin. While Nedal was aware of New Zealand through the meat that was imported to Syria, Ebtesam knew nothing about her new home, so she did some 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 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 say they felt a huge sense of relief to spend their first summer 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.

For Ebtesam, it meant she could finally get some 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 including Kiwi culture, the services and support available and how New Zealand systems works, recent refugee arrivals join their new community in one of the refugee settlement locations around the country. For the Ebrahims, that new home was Dunedin. On 15 March 2019 the family moved south.

Nedal and Taste Nature owner Clinton Chambers outside the store (Photo: Elodie Berthe)

Settling in

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

The New Zealand Red Cross’s Pathways to Employment programme offers help to all former refugees, no matter how long they have been in the country, to transition into work. Teams across 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 he and Clinton met, the contract was signed.

Nedal and his falafel (Photo: Elodie Berthe)

These days Negal works in the Taste Nature kitchen, helping the team with food preparation, washing dishes and keeping the area spotless. Nicknamed “the boss” by his workmates, Nedal is recognised as a great cook and kind-hearted colleague who is 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

Recently, Nedal has spent much of his time between the storeroom and the aisles, pushing trolleys full of groceries. During the level four lockdown, he moved from the kitchen to the shop to help restock shelves, as grocery demand increased.

The grocery in Taste Nature was allowed to stay open and Nedal became an essential worker: 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 because everything else was closed.”

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

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 restaurant chef, so when he cooks Arabic food he is in his element. When Taste Nature began providing lunch to staff during lockdown, Nedal brought along some of his special food to share.

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

Since the cafe 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.

But he hasn’t forgotten his key role during lockdown. “I felt important as an essential worker. I was proud.”

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. Over the next few days, in the run-up to World Refugee Day on June 20 and in collaboration with the New Zealand Red Cross, we’re sharing some of their stories.

Read more:

Essential Kiwi Legend: The Afghan refugee who became an emergency nurse



The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.