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The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey part 1: Pre-Departure

NEED FOR A SAFE HOME AND FAMILY LIFE IN NEW ZEALAND

There will be peace and happiness and that does not happen here. (Middle-aged male)

Introduction

The people who took part in our study had been living in difficult and often risky conditions for nearly 20 years. This might be expected to affect their views about what they needed for a safe home and family life in any country of resettlement.

Most study participants had never been able to make an adult life for themselves as free citizens in a normal city context. Of the 33 participants, 16, nearly half the sample, had been aged under 18, including 10 aged under 12, when they became camp residents. Of the 6 who had been aged 30 years or over in Bhutan before becoming refugees, 5 had received no education and had only limited elementary schooling. Understandably, such people might struggle to envisage life as an unrestricted citizen with the resources, goods and services of city life – let alone life in a developed Western city.

Life as an inhabitant of a refugee camp had schooled individuals generally to manage within whatever resources were afforded them. It was an environment that demanded personal ingenuity but where personal effort to make one’s way in life was constrained by reliance on political impotence and the consequential need to rely on international aid.

Nevertheless, these participants were optimistic and resilient in their views about life after resettlement. They were not unrealistic in outlook about what they would need for a safe home and family life.

Housing

The housing circumstances in camps in Nepal are relatively cramped and basic, involving self-built bamboo huts close to one another. Small huts usually house many members of one extended family. Cooking and water facilities are basic with no electricity.

Study participants knew camp housing conditions were unacceptably low by normal standards. One young woman who had been in camp since she was 2 years old declared, ‘here we are in a hut’, which was echoed by others. ‘Here’, said an older man, ‘we live under plastic roof [and] sometimes it blows away and we sleep under a tree’. Some people had very little concept of what housing would be like or what would be needed for life in New Zealand. One individual said they would ‘see when there’ (older male), and another said, ‘Don’t know about housing’ (adult female). ‘We haven’t thought about that one [that is, a house]’, said another, ‘we will get to know only when we reach New Zealand’ (young adult female).

Only one man had sophisticated ideas of what his family would need in a home, including ‘furniture … communication facility … a library inside the house … home tutoring [and] somewhere to play music’ (adult male). However, this man was an exception; by and large, study participants expected to manage with whatever they were given:

We are satisfied with whatever Government organisation gives us. It is very difficult for us to choose. (Adult male)

I do not know the system so whatever is provided I will be happy with. (Adult male)

What to say? Here we are in a hut which is made by ourselves so what to say? We would be happy with whatever you provide us with. (Adult female)

People who were responsible for maintaining a home in a refugee camp often specified basic criteria in a house to aid daily life: ‘things which are needed to cook food. Kitchen, bathroom and toilet’ (adult female), to achieve ‘cleanliness and hygiene’ (adult male) or ‘a simple house, don’t need a big house. House with kitchen and bathroom’ (adult male). Some younger participants had visions of a Western lifestyle and, as one young woman declared, wanted ‘facilities like telephone and TV and CDs I can listen to’. A young man wanted an ‘internet connection and phone. Standard household facilities. TV’. However, most young people shared more traditional expectations.

For others, having the family together was the most important thing. As one man declared, he wanted ‘my whole family members will live in same place’. ‘I wish everyone will be together’, said another man. Their sentiments were echoed by younger people. A young man wanted to be ‘with my family members’, and his sentiments were echoed by a young man who wanted a ‘good house … me and my family and grandparents should be together’.

For many, expectations of housing reflected a past dependence on subsistence provision, and the obsession with cleanliness might reflect an inability to control this within the camps.

Neighbours

Almost all study participants projected a sense of connectedness to extended family and friends into expectations of connectedness with neighbours. Camp life in Nepal is communal, reflecting traditional cultural lifestyles as well as the realities of having to live close to each other with little privacy. The one exception was a man who declared, ‘I can adjust with any community there, it is not necessary that the neighbours are from here’. Most expected friends and neighbours to be essential assets, ‘for a few months at the beginning we will want all our friends who are living there … if our friends are living near us we will be in peace’ otherwise consequences would be dire, ‘[we] will become homeless’, said one man.

Although not everyone specified having neighbours from their own Bhutanese community, several did so, and it may be that others expected it would be so. Individuals of all ages and backgrounds wanted neighbours who would be ‘Nepali … who understand our language (adult female), ‘all Nepali’ (middle-aged male) ‘local people’ (that is, Bhutanese) since native-born New Zealanders would be ‘different than me’ (middle-aged male).

Most study participants expected that neighbours would be at least as important in New Zealand as formerly since ‘neighbours are important to us. We are in need of neighbours’ (young adult male). A few were uneasy that they did not know enough about the society, including its people and social practices, that they were moving into to be confident of neighbours. As one young man said, ‘what kind of neighbours will there be? Will they like us or not?’ Study participants wanted people who would be welcoming and whose helpfulness could be practical and reciprocal:

Neighbours who are helpful and interesting. (Adult male)

Neighbours should be kind and helpful and help us in pain or sorrow. We get a chance to share with them and they can help us. (Adult female)

Helpful and hospitable [allowing] interacting with them. (Young adult female)

The Bhutanese hoped they would be treated in the way they had themselves treated newcomers in their own communities, ‘expecting help from the neighbours. We will first be like a guest. We don’t have anything’ (adult male).

Religion and culture

Many of the study participants conveyed the hope that they would have the opportunity to freely express their religious and cultural practices. This is understandable given the persecution and suppression that they had experienced before fleeing Bhutan. In the late 1980s, the Government of Bhutan began to suppress the culture, religion and language of the predominantly Hindu Lhotshampa, making it illegal for them to wear anything other than northern traditional dress and removing the Nepali language from the school curriculum.

Study participants wanted neighbours specifically and society generally to permit the practice of their culture and religion. Although for most participants religion meant the Hindu faith, some identified as Christian so for them the move to a Christian country was expected to be beneficial since ‘being Christian we want to go to church regularly with whole family [there will be] more materials like Christianity we need, not available in Nepal’ (adult male). Religion and culture were inseparable. Being Hindu meant faith and cultural practices such as ‘festivals, ceremonies, marriages and deaths [for which] we are [in] need of neighbours [since] we usually celebrate together’ (young adult female). Individuals typically explained the importance of ‘Hindu festivals’. As one said, ‘we don’t want anyone to criticise our festivals or criticise our culture … we would like to flourish our Hindu culture and tradition’ (adult female). ‘We want to keep existence of our religion … not eliminate our religion and our culture’ (young adult female). They wanted to be able to ‘continuously’ and openly be seen to worship:

We would like to see that whenever we celebrate our festivals we can get an opportunity to celebrate and hope that nobody interrupts our religion. We want the freedom to celebrate our religion. (Adult male)

I am in the Hindu society and there are some important rituals, births, deaths and marriages. I hope I can practice that along with other people of other religions living there. (Adult male)

Being Hindu meant not only maintaining public religious observances, but also personal practices, notably around alcohol, food and clothes. Study participants wanted to live among ‘people who do not use drugs or alcohol, and are good mannered’ (adult female). Others wanted traditions of dress to continue:

For the continuous religion … married girl needs to wear bangles, tika and sari … if we give continuity to those things we can continue our culture and religion. (Adult female)

Past repression may have made this a sensitive point. As one man said recalling the prejudice:

We would like to follow our culture and wear our traditional clothes [and] caps. In Bhutan we were forced to wear national dress. In New Zealand we hope we will not be forced to wear national dress. (Adult male)

Ideas about food preparation were similarly precise:

For us to maintain our culture we do not eat food made by others. We don’t like to eat food made by other people. (Middle-aged male)

Memories of religious repression gave rise to anxiety. A man explained:

Will I be able to practice as I am practicing here? Can I keep a statue of God and worship? (Adult male)

An adult male pondered the issue, saying, ‘we are Hindu [but] what do they practice in New Zealand? How are they practising there?’ An older man echoed this:

What kind of religion [do] that country’s people follow? Do we have to follow that religion … have to [practice] according to their rules and regulations? [It would be better] if we can follow our own that’s good for us. (Older male)

The Bhutanese community have known a considerable amount of religious persecution; and the sentiments of most conveyed a high level of religious tolerance. Even very religious people were willing to accept that the traditions might be modified for the generation who would grow up in New Zealand. As a woman who expressed an ardent hope to follow her religion in private faith and public dress, accepted that ‘my children might grow up in that different environment [that is, New Zealand] that’s okay they have a right to live their own way’.

It may be that younger people were less committed to their religion than their elders. An adult woman said, ‘I think my parents will follow the same as what they are following now – Hindu’, but his parents left the issue open for him personally. Similarly, a young adult male said it was ‘quite important to be in our religion’, but not for his own sake:

I don’t bother about religion but it may be a severe matter for grandfather and grandmother. I believe that there is only one God. My grandparents [don’t] view [it that way] so might be issue for them. (Young adult male)

Social networks and supports

In the run-up to resettlement to New Zealand, study participants had come to recognise that their community was on the verge of being dispersed throughout the Western world, raising challenges for maintaining networks and linkages and preserving their distinct ethnic identity. As one young married woman said, ‘[I] can’t say’ how to stay in touch with friends, ‘Maybe it will be hard’. Another woman declared, ‘I don’t think we will be able to meet’. A few people hoped that the Government in New Zealand would afford them the means of staying in contact, ‘I expect [the] government will provide some facilities to keep in touch’ (adult male).

Although not everyone answered the question about how they would stay in touch with friends, only one person said this was a matter of little importance; this appeared to be because he had many relatives, ‘relatives. Have 30. Not important to keep in contact with [friends]’. Apart from one woman who hoped she could save money to meet up with camp friends face to face in the future, study participants expected to retain contact using the phone or internet:

Through phone and mobile phone it is not possible to meet them though. (Adult male)

I have some friends in Bhutan some are resettled. I hope we can keep connected by email to share experiences. (Young adult male)

Most friends have already gone. Keep in touch by phone, mostly friends are in [the United States]. (Young adult male)

Young and old, well-educated and uneducated people expected to rely on modern technologies of phone and internet. One man envisaged a systematic approach to communication:

Yes we have friends here in Bhutan we are out of communication some went [to] different countries, I hope we can develop a network system to keep in touch with them and find out everyday life and share things. It would be better if we could make a network system of information. (Adult male)

At the other extreme a woman knew of the technology but relied on her family to utilise it, ‘my children are educated so I think they will call [friends]’.

Participants had given little thought to making New Zealand friends after resettlement. ‘I haven’t thought about that’, said one, and ‘before going I can’t say anything’, said another. ‘I cannot imagine how new friends might be made’, ‘I will know when I get there’, declared others. Individuals were unsure whether making friends would be easy or difficult,[9] but all acknowledged the importance of making friends even if they had not thought about how they would do so.

Safety and security

To feel safe in the new communities of resettlement, participants expected they would have to have friends or at least be friendly with new people. As one person said it would be necessary ‘not to fight with the people, we have to be friendly with the neighbours’. Another declared, ‘to be safe we need security, like security in friends and neighbours’.

Although individuals hoped that the new society would be welcoming, issues of ‘security’, were envisaged as matters of the rule of law. At this level, individuals expected New Zealand to be a safe place compared with the refugee camps, ‘it is a good country … security will be there’ (young adult male); people would feel safe ‘under the care of government and organisations’ (middle-aged male). As one man declared:

I will feel more secure than here because that country is educated country and rules and regulations are better than this country and things that happen here will not happen there. There will be peace and happiness and that does not happen here. (Middle-aged male)

Summary of needs for a safe home and family life

For the people in this study, having basic facilities; the freedom to maintain domestic, social and religious habits; friends and neighbours; religious tolerance; and the rule of law made for optimism despite a fraught history of repression. It is likely that a sense of safety is also wrapped up in the ability to see a future for themselves. These people wanted to play an active role in supporting what they hoped to enjoy; ‘we should not be bad for that country, we should follow their rules and regulations’ (young adult female).


[9] Of those who answered, 7 thought making new friends would be easy and 9 thought it would be difficult; some complicated their answers by saying initial difficulties could be overcome by familiarity, politeness and so on.