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  • Shaun Christie-David offers asylum seekers and refugees jobs in his new business. (SBS)
Sydney restaurant Colombo Social hires refugees and asylum seekers helping to kickstart their careers in Australia, and it’s run by two friends who met in high school.
By
Sandra Fulloon, Jennifer Scherer

10 Jan - 12:32 PM  UPDATED 15 Jan - 9:21 AM

Jency Antony fled Sri Lanka in the aftermath of civil war and has struggled to find work in Australia. Now he’s among workers offered a fresh start at a new Sri Lankan restaurant.

Jency fears returning to his homeland.

“I cannot live there [in Sri Lanka] because the army [would] arrest me,” he said.

“If they catch me I am finished, I go to jail,” he said.

Since arriving in Sydney Jency has struggled to find work. Now Colombo Social is giving him a chance to earn a regular income.

“Working here is a good thing because I forget everything, I am happy,” Jency said taking a break from washing dishes.

Business co-founder Shaun Christie-David says the restaurant has already employed five asylum seekers and hopes this will provide an important stepping-stone into Australian employment.

“A few of these people have been here [in Australia] for 10 years and never had a chance,” Shaun told SBS Small Business Secrets.

“We saw their CV’s and they may not have had front-of-house experience, but they had a work ethic and a smile.”

Colombo Social’s menu is inspired by Shaun’s mother, with spicy Sri Lankan favourites served alongside Australian fusion dishes. The signature dish: a soft shell crab taco.

It’s served on roti bread with a mango salsa and topped with a tasty sambal.

“It’s been flying off at the moment, and is currently the favourite dish on the menu,” Shaun explained during a busy weeknight service.

Shaun’s family migrated from Sri Lanka 36 years ago, and he grew up in Sydney’s south-west.

He understands the challenges faced by people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. 

“I went to boarding school with predominantly white kids,” he said.

“Being brown, you felt different.

“I’d see kids with vegemite sandwiches and I’d bring a Dahl sandwich … I was slightly embarrassed by [the questions of] ‘what’s that?’ and ‘what’s that smell?’”

Shaun says these experiences have shaped his empathy for new migrants who may “not feel like [they’re] part of it.”

Shaun is proud to celebrate Sri Lankan flavours, with a modern twist.

“This is us and our food and our heritage, not something to be ashamed of.”

“To me and many first-generation migrants, it’s coming of age and showcasing what we were once embarrassed by.

He started Colombo Social with school friend Peter Jones-Best, with the aim of giving refugees and asylum seekers a fresh start.

The social enterprise eatery works with refugee support agency Settlement Services International and several not-for-profit suppliers. Colombo Social also provides ongoing mental health support to staff who’ve experienced trauma.

Shaun is determined to lend Sri Lankan refugees and asylum seekers a helping hand.

The Sri Lankan civil war spanned 26-years, an insurgency against the government fought by Tamil separatists from 1983-2009. 

Both sides have been accused of human rights abuses including the indiscriminate killing of civilians, enforced disappearances and the use of child soldiers.

Jency is among thousands of Sri Lankans to escape.

“It’s dangerous, a lot of people [who I know, have] died already,” the now 38-year-old said.

“But I don’t have any [other] way – I have to go to Australia.”

When his boat was intercepted, Jency was detained on Christmas Island and later in Western Australia.

Colombo Social hopes asylum seekers like Jency can use this work experience as a launch pad into other employment or entrepreneurship.

“We are trying to help these guys get a first step up in Australia,” Peter said.

“We hope to see our team grow and move into senior positions and hopefully, one day, even start their own restaurants.”