At the age of 50 and after decades in a Nepalese refugee camp, Santa Bir Gurung was recently awarded Master Builders’ 2022 Far North Queensland Apprentice of the Year.

His long journey to success in an adopted homeland is a remarkable story of persistence, optimism and belief, along with the value of local encouragement and support.

Santa was born in 1971 in a small village in Bhutan, which he was forced to flee from as a teenager amid protests against oppressive measures of the Bhutanese government.


“The Government of Bhutan exiled all the Nepalese origin people from the country,” he said.

“My family sought safety in neighbouring country Nepal where we spent the next 26 years in a refugee camp.

“The living conditions were harsh, dusty and overcrowded.

“During this time, I worked as a primary school teacher and then eight years prior to applying for re-settlement in Australia I worked in construction."

Santa was one of around 100,000 Bhutanese to end up in Nepal, before being granted the opportunity to move to Australia in 2017.

His family of seven settled in Cairns.

Months later, Santa completed a Certificate I in Construction through the Queensland Government’s Skilling Queenslanders for Work initiative hosted by Centacare FNQ and MiHaven Training.

In doing so, he overcame barriers including language challenges, a low level of formal education, no private transport, a lack of confidence and his age.

“I knew taking up the opportunity to undertake a vocational educational pathway would provide me with the skills I required to seek employment,” Santa said.

“This motivated me from start to finish to complete my qualification.

“I faced quite a few barriers throughout my training but with the support of Centacare FNQ and MiHaven Training, every time I faced a barrier, I would seek their assistance for help.

“My hope was to find work quickly as I wanted to provide for my young family and make a worthwhile contribution to our new home.

“I did not want to be a burden on my new country.


After obtaining a construction white card, he was able to start work experience in bricklaying with Prime Constructions, which was the lead builder on Crystalbrook Collection’s Riley Hotel.

It was onsite that he met his future boss, Mark Fletcher.

“Concerns were raised about my level of English,” Santa said.

“Provisions were made to ensure I was closely supervised.

“Prime’s Training Coordinator and Safety Officer checked on me regularly and after a few days I switched hosts to Mark Fletcher to try solid plastering.

“After only two days Mark offered me an apprenticeship.”

Santa completed his apprenticeship last December, five months ahead of schedule and with a 100 per cent attendance rate.

“It brings me great joy and great sense of self achievement to see how my success has brought satisfaction to those who have helped me through this transition,” he said.

“I owe it to my family, fellow refugees, the Bhutanese community, and those who assisted me to complete my apprenticeship to the best of my ability.

“Now that I am qualified, I am earning the wage of a qualified tradesman.

“I have since purchased my own car and have become very independent. 

“I am now able to assist my fellow co-workers to job sites, especially when travelling longer distances to Port Douglas and Atherton.

“My employer can rely on me to work in remote areas and stay overnight when required.”

That employer, Mark Fletcher of Mark Fletcher Solid Plaster & Texture Coatings, couldn’t be prouder.


“He started off real slow but as the story goes, he’s unbelievable,” Mark said.

“Workwise, he’s very reliable, dependable and his worth ethic and quality of work is second to none.

“He took it upon himself to go and learn English and now he’s a lot more outgoing with the other lads and is a bit of a loveable rogue."

Despite his successes, Santa’s ambitions haven’t waned – he now wants to complete a certificate IV in Training and Assessment so that he can train other apprentices in the workplace and become a Workplace Health and Safety officer.


Main points

  • Santa Bir Gurung spent 26 years in a refugee camp in Nepal before settling in Cairns five years ago
  • He was named FNQ Apprentice of the Year by Master Builders earlier this month
  • Santa now has plans to become a trainer and workplace safety officer in the construction industry
I knew I had something to offer.
He is now putting his 23-year-old daughter through medical school so that she will become a doctor here in Australia.