Home > Publications > Research > The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey > Part 3: Settlement > Social interactions and cultural maintenance

The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey Part 3: Settlement

social interactions and cultural maintenance

‘It is necessary to teach our children who don’t know our culture. It’s your own identity. It’s very important for us.’ (Middle-aged male)


Social support is another key factor involved in successful resettlement. It is important that there is support from refugees’ family, friends and ethnic community as well as the receiving community (McDonald et al., 2008). The support from family and friends of the same or similar ethnic background is particularly important as it enables new arrivals to maintain their familiar cultural practices, patterns and relationships. This plays a large role in the ability to feel settled (Ager & Strang, 2008).

The former Bhutanese refugees interviewed in this study were only the second cohort to be resettled in New Zealand. Therefore, there are only small numbers within this ethnic community in New Zealand. In addition, due to the third-country resettlement programme currently underway, Bhutanese refugees are being dispersed around many different Western countries throughout the world. This presents particular challenges for this community in terms of maintaining their unique Nepali Bhutanese culture as well as maintaining contact with one another.

This chapter explores how the Bhutanese community have kept in contact with one another, and are managing to maintain their culture and religion in a Western society.

Pre-departure expectations

Interviewees relayed a strong sense of identity during interviews conducted in Nepal. It was hoped that contact could be maintained with friends and family still in camps in Nepal as well as those resettled in other countries. However, it was not known how this might work in practice: ‘difficult to contact [family] as resettling in many different countries’. After experiences of cultural and religious persecution many interviewees also hoped to be able to freely express themselves in New Zealand and wear their national dress, follow their traditions and worship freely. One woman relayed her thoughts on the matter saying ‘we don’t want anybody to remove that we are Hindu … We don’t want anybody to criticise our festivals. We would like to flourish our Hindu culture and tradition’. In addition, coming from a collective society and after being in communal living conditions for a prolonged period of time neighbours were an important element of the life they envisaged for themselves in New Zealand. It was hoped that neighbours would be supportive and helpful on arrival and also that they would be Nepali: ‘I like Nepali neighbours because there [New Zealand] local people will be different than me’. (Middle-aged male) 

Social Interactions

Making friends

Many interviewees had made friends with New Zealanders or people from other ethnic communities since their arrival. Mostly friends had been made through English language or other courses or in some cases through sports teams. Some of the younger participants had experienced some difficulty in making friends at school, this was mainly due to the fact that ‘cliques’ already existed, and/or due to communication difficulties. Some parents also expressed that their children had initially had difficulty making friends, but once they had settled in to school, and their English improved this had changed.


In the first two phases of this research, neighbours emerged as being of high importance to this group. Camp life in Nepal was communal, reflecting traditional culture as well as the realities of having to live close to each other with little privacy in a refugee camp environment. Prior to arrival in New Zealand it was assumed by interviewees that this close contact would continue, and indeed during interviews most reported that they have had contact with their neighbours to varying degrees since arriving in the community. For some contact was a wave when they saw their neighbour, whereas for others more of a relationship had formed with children playing together, and meals being shared at each others’ homes. Others exchanged vegetables, or helped each other out when needed:

One family gave us a big cake when we arrived, and we share veges when we grow them. (Adult female)

The neighbours are good - we share meals and visit each others’ houses. (Middle-aged male)

The grass was long so when the neighbour saw me he helped me mow the lawn. (Middle-aged male)

We visit the neighbours and they visit us. Our son plays with their son who is around the same age. (Middle-aged female)

Contact with each other

There was a strong sense of community in all of the centres visited, whereby the Bhutanese community had formed groups and were in constant contact with one another. In Christchurch, they took turns to visit each others homes and had formed an ethnic society. Those in Palmerston North had gained use of a community hall which they used to gather together. In Nelson, close contact with one another was also maintained, and they too had made steps to form an ethnic society. There was a definite sense of connectedness to each other within each city, but also within New Zealand, and it was clear that the community had been able to maintain contact with each other, and that this was important.

Contact with friends and families outside of New Zealand

Every person interviewed had been in regular contact with friends and family still in camps in Nepal, and/or with those resettled in other countries, mostly the United States, Canada and Australia. The main method of communication was telephone, with the use of phone cards, but some also used the internet to email or Skype friends and family. However, some problems, particularly early on, were experienced. For example, on arrival to New Zealand the lack of understanding about the cost of toll calls, and the ease with which such calls could be made meant that several families racked up huge phone bills that they were unable to pay:

The first three weeks the phone line was connected but there was no restriction on international dialling so we ran up a big phone bill. The phone line now only has local calls. (Adult female)

For some, the contact with friends and family is particularly important, as they have no family in New Zealand, or as was often the case, the husband’s family was in New Zealand, but the wife’s family was resettled in another country:

All my husband’s family is here but all mine are in the USA so I am caught. I would like to go and visit them … My daughter says she will be a pilot and take me to the USA. (Adult female)

For those without family members in New Zealand it has been more difficult to feel settled and homesickness and sadness were common. Many would like the opportunity to visit their family in other countries, but with the cost of this it is difficult to envisage how this, at least in the immediate future, will be possible.

In addition, many worried about their family still in camps in Nepal and those in Bhutan. For those with family still in Bhutan this was particularly concerning and contact with these family members was more dangerous and therefore intermittent as one man relayed ‘I have parents in Bhutan, sometimes I contact Bhutan but if authorities find out that a phone call is for my father then he will be arrested so my father sometimes calls from Bhutan instead’.

Others who had no family in New Zealand desperately wanted their loved ones to be resettled in New Zealand, but more often than not were told that this was not going to be possible:

Most difficult thing is not having our own relatives here - no one from our own family … My husband’s parents would like to come to New Zealand but UNHCR said no. (Adult female)

My sister and her husband would like to come to New Zealand but the UNHCR said no and they’re processing their application to the USA. My sister realised that I was all alone and she wanted to come to be with me but they said no. (Adult female)

Like other refugee groups in New Zealand, it is apparent that as the former Bhutanese refugees become more settled in New Zealand, family reunification will be of increasing importance. It will be important that this process is well managed and clearly communicated.


Given a history of religious and cultural persecution, the ability to freely practice their culture and religion was important to the Bhutanese interviewed. Before arrival to New Zealand it was hoped for, but unknown whether this would be possible.

Most of those interviewed had been able to freely express themselves by celebrating their ethnic festivals, wearing traditional dress, and cooking the food that they are familiar with in New Zealand. However, whilst this group has had the freedom to freely express their cultural and religious practices, living in a Western society means that there are some restrictions and barriers in their ability to do this. This has meant that there has had to be some flexibility and creativity involved in the way in which rituals are performed, worship is conducted and festivals celebrated. For example, when a new baby is born a naming ceremony is performed and as part of this a fire needs to be lit. For one family, instead of doing this the ‘traditional’ way they ‘did it in the garage’. Festivals were still celebrated, but were generally on a smaller scale, and not all of them were celebrated in the same way they would have been in the past, as one man said ‘we wouldn’t have leave to celebrate them all’.

Ability to practice religion

The majority of the interviewees are Hindu, and their religion and faith is of extreme importance to them and their wellbeing. However, the ability for the former Bhutanese refugees to practice their religion and worship differed depending on location.

In Christchurch, many of the former Bhutanese refugees had located and attended worship at a Hare Krishna Temple. In addition, every Sunday they got together and worshipped at each others homes. For those in Christchurch, performing necessary rituals was much easier as a priest was resettled as part of the group.

For those based in Palmerston North, the ability to worship was somewhat more restricted. Whilst most interviewees stated that they were able to worship at home and got together as a group, there was no temple for them to go to. In addition, a main cause of extreme stress for many in Palmerston North was the lack of a priest. The following sentiment came up time and again during interviews: ‘there is no temple, no place for worship and no Hindu priest in Palmerston North. It is very important to have a priest’. The absence of a priest meant there was no one to perform important rituals. It was possible to get the priest from Christchurch to come up to Palmerston North, however, this cost money and during festival times for example he was also needed in Christchurch.

For the interviewees who are Christian, finding a place of worship had been easy, and in fact, was much easier than in Nepal where they were very much in a minority. These families had been well supported by their church communities and had experienced no difficulties as far as religion was concerned.

There were some concerns raised about the ability to perform certain rituals and adhere to certain protocols, of particular concern was around death. At the time of interviews there had been no deaths within the community. However, it was identified that when this did happen the Bhutanese would not know what to do or whether they would be able to perform the necessary rituals before cremation. In addition, following a death a bereaved person does not leave home for 14 days. Concerns about whether this would be possible in New Zealand given work and study commitments were voiced. Ensuring that there is a good understanding between the Bhutanese community and schools, learning institutions and other agencies will be necessary to manage the differing cultural practices.

Cultural Maintenance

Given how globally dispersed this population has become, the issue of cultural maintenance comes to the fore. As a group the Nepali Bhutanese have a strong sense of identity. This is something that came through during all three interview phases. Interviewees were asked how they might maintain this identity in Western societies, given that they are so dispersed throughout the world.

Many acknowledged the difficulties of maintaining their language in New Zealand. They realised that their children were quickly learning English, and that they would be exposed to English as a main language; only speaking Nepali at home. For those who spoke certain dialects, there was also the realisation that this would die out. For example, one man identified that he was one of only two people in New Zealand that could speak his tribal language. He wanted to be able to pass this language on to his children, but knew that in reality it was unlikely that this would happen. The importance of maintaining their culture and passing this on to their children was expressed by many. For example:

It is necessary to teach our children who don’t know our culture … It’s your own identity. It’s very important for us. (Middle-aged male)

It is very important to teach [our children] the culture. They will learn English at school. (Adult female)

It’s very important to pass on to our children. We know our rituals and culture but if we don’t teach our children they won’t know. We are trying to get funding to teach our children Sanskrit. (Middle-aged male)

Very important 100 percent ... It’s our duty to protect the culture. (Adult female)

In Palmerston North two initiatives have been started to help the Bhutanese there to connect with each other and share their culture. Every Sunday families gather at a local hall and teach their children the Nepali language, and Sanskrit. In addition, a weekly one hour programme has been started on a local radio station for the local Bhutanese community to tune in to.


Prior to arriving in New Zealand it was unknown by interviewees how much contact they would be able to maintain with one another or what level of autonomy they would be provided to dress in their national dress and follow the Hindu faith in New Zealand.

Whilst there have definitely been challenges associated with practicing the Hindu faith appropriately in New Zealand, for the most part these have been able to be worked around with creative thinking and flexibility. There are concerns for the wellbeing of the older generation, particularly in Palmerston North, who do not currently have a priest within their community. This is a cause of stress, and weighs heavily on the older generation. Likewise, the lack of understanding about Nepali Bhutanese and Hindu culture/faith in New Zealand is cause for concern for some interviewed as they are unsure if they will be able to carryout important rituals and protocols following certain events.

Despite the challenges associated with being a dispersed ethnic community living in Western societies, it is clear that as a group the former Bhutanese refugees are highly motivated and proactive. Whilst being realistic about what can be achieved, they are making steps to connect with each other at the local level, arranging informal gatherings to get together and worship. In addition, they have quickly organised themselves to create formal Bhutanese ethnic societies. It is these kinds of measures, along with the importance placed on their sense of identity that will ensure this group, at least in the near future, is able to maintain their culture and religion as much as is possible. Making places available for this community to gather together to worship and socialise will be important in the longer term for maintaining the Nepali Bhutanese cultural identity.