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The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey Part 1: Pre-Departure


Education’s important, if education is there, everything is there. (Adult male)


Although the Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal have been cited as models of their type in various ways, they have nevertheless provided highly constrained environments. Camps did not support a normal infrastructure for civil society: there was no unrestricted field for private enterprise in goods and services and limited local government or professional sectors in which refugees could gain employment or training. The major exception was education. In contrast to other areas of professional endeavour, education gave scope for the employment of refugees with appropriate training and offered an avenue of training and at least a potential route for career development for camp refugees.

The importance of education can be seen in participants’ hopes and visions of a future life after resettlement.

Education within the camps

Access to schooling is widely available within the camps in Nepal. The nine main schools have on average 4,000 pupils. It is estimated that over 40 percent of the refugee population attends education within the camps. Classes are conducted in Nepali and English and follow a modified version of the Bhutanese curriculum. Refugees staff and manage the schools, and schoolrooms are temporary structures made from bamboo and grass. The UNHCR funds primary education, which caters from pre-primary to grade 8, and CARITAS funds secondary education grades 9 and 10. Upper secondary education (grades 11 and 12) and university students must go outside camps to nearby government or private campuses to study. Limited resources are available to fund these students.

The younger members of the study participants displayed a commitment to high educational achievement, at least inasmuch as it was available through the camp education system. Of the 17 people aged 18 to 31 years in the sample, 7 defined themselves as students when they were interviewed. Education was highly regarded by study participants, young and old, the highly educated and illiterate. This may be a traditional view as one respondent said, ‘education is part of culture’ (adult female). Certainly, education had come to play an important role in camp culture and there was a broad consensus on the issue:

Education is very important for development. (Young adult female)

Education’s important. If education is there, every thing is there. (Adult male)

Family members who had missed out on education regarded it as essential for their children’s development:

My kids have education is important, if they are provided education I would be hopeful. (Middle-aged male)

My children are young, not educated. Education for my children and if possible my husband also to go to school. (Adult female)

The education system of these camps has been held up as exemplary and as having effective teacher training and support and an exam system that has produced high levels of participation, motivation, cooperation and orderliness among students (Brown, 2001). Study participants looked to their education as the key to a better life after resettlement.

Role of education after resettlement

Camp residents appear to have understood at least some of the shortcomings of the education system operating in the refugee camps. Those who had had education, and those who had not, joined in consensus that they wanted better education after resettlement: ‘we hope that it is different than this’ said a young woman; ‘here our teacher comes in a week and [teachers] change frequently’; ‘I hope their education is better than here’ (middle-aged male). New Zealand schooling was also expected to be better:

I think all schools are very good in New Zealand … It is a highly developed country. (Adult male)

A few had concerns about securing an education in New Zealand. One parent feared the cost of education would be prohibitive, even if it were available:

I think a good school is an English-medium school, it may be expensive, [might need] temporary support. (Adult male)

However, most expressed no such fear.

Older study participants wanted education not for academic or career purposes but to equip them for daily life after resettlement, for practical day-to-day management of their own lives in a new society. An illiterate woman declared, ‘I wish if possible that my husband goes to school. My husband would like to study English’ so the family could get by in the new country. Another man declared that he and his wife wanted ‘to get a chance to talk openly and to go to medical hospitals and the market … For me and my wife we need education from the beginning for language’ (middle-aged male).

Younger people tended to think of education and employment. There was a sense of frustration at the lack of opportunities for higher education or employment after study while restricted to camps in Nepal. Resettlement in New Zealand was seen as an opportunity to further education in order to secure employment: ‘without education we will not get a job’ (adult male) and ‘after completing education we might get jobs’ (young adult female).

Some participants had ambitious plans. A few wanted professional employment in occupations with which they could have had very little personal or practical experience in refugee camps. ‘I would like to learn accounting’ said a young woman, and others wanted advanced tertiary education:

To go ahead I may need vocational training … to start with to get income but I also want academic. (Adult male)

English language acquisition

The Lhotshampa speak Nepali. However, up to 35 percent of Bhutanese refugees have some functional knowledge of English (Cultural Orientation Resource Centre, 2007). Everyone recognised the importance of English; language acquisition would be a prerequisite to a bright future.

Not only was English seen as an essential asset in managing to take advantage of life in New Zealand, it was seen as promising access to the world:

English is worldwide. We will fit in if we know this. (Young adult female)

The sample population fell into four ‘natural’ groups in regard to English language acquisition.

First, there were the very young, preschool or school-aged children of participants who had had some access to English language tuition within the camps. These children are likely to learn well within a school system and are likely to require very little by way of additional English language support after an initial period in New Zealand. Certainly, participants in our sample took for granted the ability to learn English as a critical part of the education of their children. Parents in the sample who had had little education themselves tended to assume that camp teaching had already equipped their children with English:

My children understand English it is important for my children [to learn English]. (Middle-aged male)

Secondly, there were young adults who had had a camp education, but had acquired only limited English competence. For instance, one young man, who had been in camp since he was aged 7, said, ‘if it’s necessary to learn the language then I have to learn’. Most people of his age appeared to have been taught at least some English, although they might have had reservations about understanding English spoken with a New Zealand accent.

Thirdly, there were older parents and grandparents who did not speak English but who had younger family members who spoke English and were expected to support their elders. These older people expressed some willingness to learn English, although they might be over-optimistic about their ability. For instance, one older man explained that he wanted ‘to speak the language. I want to know the language. Whatever help I need you should all help us with’. Some of the older generation had already applied themselves to the challenge. ‘Language class in camp is being attended by my mother’, one young woman explained. Generally, younger people tended to have had more understanding of the challenges their elders would face in learning a new language and they expressed concern for their parents and grandparents who would find English harder to learn than they expected:

Parents are illiterate so need education from the beginning. (Young adult female)

For older parents, better to teach little as they may be too old for classes. (Adult male)

For our parents we will also be there to teach. We will need to teach [our illiterate elders] with visual material. (Young adult male)

Fourthly, there were middle-aged adults who were not literate in English but who need to become economically self-sufficient in New Zealand to support their families in the longer term. This group is likely to have the biggest challenges in terms of needing to learn English rapidly to navigate in New Zealand society and, ultimately, to be able to be independent and support their families. Most recognised that they would need to acquire English. As one man declared:

We should learn the language … to learn in official work … If someone comes from an office we need to be able to give answers to them. (Middle-aged male)

This view was echoed by others:

To find a job English is important, to communicate with offices and to communicate with people. (Young adult male)

To learn language is important. I don’t understand a lot today. Language classes and school are important to learn[ing]. (Middle-aged male)

The challenge of learning English might be greater for women than for men in this group, although this is not to discount the willingness of women to learn. For instance, one woman explained that she knew ‘after arriving there we would have to learn English. I think I have to learn English’. But there were indications that women tended to be less literate than men camp communities. As one man said, his main concern about resettlement was to ‘give wife a chance to study to improve understanding’. Several children were concerned about the illiteracy of their mothers. ‘My father can speak English but my mother cannot’ said one young man. He went on, ‘I hear the Government has a language class so that may help my mother learn’. He was echoed by others, ‘To help my mother learn English we would have to teach her at home’ (adult female).

Summary of perspectives of education and English language acquisition

Continuing education and gaining English language competence were highly important to those interviewed and seen as critical for their future in New Zealand. The opportunity to have access to education and in turn to enter professional employment was highly valued and viewed as a way to give back to New Zealand society. The awareness and desire to learn or improve English literacy was apparent and the motivation and ambition to do so strong. This, particularly among the younger generation, will need to be carefully managed to avoid potential disappointment and frustration during the initial resettlement period.