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The Bhutanese Refugee Resettlement Journey Part 3: Settlement


‘All in all is ok … [a] better place than Nepal, everything seems fine.’ (Adult female)


The arrival to a new community in a new country and culture is a daunting task for most migrants. For refugees, this can be even more so and because of the circumstances that bring them to a new country and their past experiences it may take them longer than migrants generally to resettle (Gray, 2008). This section explores the first impressions and the initial settling in period for this group of Nepali Bhutanese refugees.

Pre-departure knowledge of New Zealand

At the time of interviews conducted in Nepal, interviewees had very limited knowledge of New Zealand. What little information interviewees did have tended to be basic and general such as that New Zealand is a ‘peaceful country’ or ‘an island near Australia’. Compared to other resettlement countries such as the United States, New Zealand was a comparative unknown. At the end of the Mangere orientation programme whilst a little more familiar with New Zealand, interviewees still knew very little about the cities they were about to be resettled in or what to expect on arrival to the community.

Initial thoughts, feelings and impressions

The arrival to Christchurch, Palmerston North and Nelson was filled with anticipation and apprehension as everything was new. In the first few days many expressed feeling overwhelmed and ‘lost’. As one mother explained of her son ‘when we first came, he stood outside the house and cried, because everything is new and he didn’t like it’.

The comparatively cold autumn weather on arrival also made adjusting difficult, particularly for those who arrived into Christchurch. Many of these interviewees when asked what their first impressions were stated that ‘it was nice, but cold’. Some were able to see the humorous side of New Zealand’s changeable conditions, calling it ‘silly weather’.

For others first impressions were also one of familiarity with the hills and plains reminding them of home; ‘when we saw the mountains surrounding it, it felt familiar’. Others also expressed happiness and relief at the sight of their new surroundings and their home:

never imagined we would find this sort of house. (Middle-aged female)

when we first saw the house we were going to live in we felt happy and excited. (Adult female)

we were expecting something worse, so when we found it we were happy. (Middle-aged female)

Most help on arrival

Following the 6 week orientation programme, refugees are resettled in the community with access to an income via various benefits, and the support of Refugee Services including the assignment of specially trained volunteers.

When asked what was the most help on arrival to the community interviewees overwhelmingly (18 out of 20 interviewees) stated that their volunteers were the single greatest source of help and support when they first arrived into the community. Volunteers were important for many reasons, not only did they provide support and a contact person within the community they also contributed greatly to familiarising interviewees with their new communities by providing practical help with shopping, banking, showing them around and linking them with services such as doctors:

The volunteers … anything you need even at night you could ring them. They solved all the problems, helped us in every aspect. We used to receive letters from different departments. We would call them, they would come and read them out and do any follow up. (Middle-aged male)

We were completely dependent on the volunteer … they were like our gods, they taught us everything. (Adult female)

The volunteers, they took us shopping, showed us the telephone, took us to WINZ. (Middle-aged female)

Beyond providing practical support, volunteers were also an important source of friendship and a link to the Kiwi community and often went above and beyond their role to become great friends and in some cases surrogate family members to the new arrivals. As one woman said:

The volunteer kept helping us till the baby was born. [She] is like my mother. She comes here and if I ask her for something she will bring it the next day. (Adult female)

At the time of interviews, all formal ties with volunteers through Refugee Services had come to a close [14]. However, almost all of those interviewed still had varying degrees of contact with their volunteer(s) and it was clear that true friendships had been forged as one woman explained:

[the volunteers] were with us for up to 6 months whenever we needed them. We are still friends with them. They told us to ask for help if I need it. (Adult female)

Whilst volunteers were the greatest source of help for most on arrival to the community, family and friends were also a source of support for those fortunate to have had family resettled in New Zealand’s first intake of Bhutanese. Family members who had cars were able to take the new arrivals shopping and ‘out and about’ as well as provide a friendly face and link to their country of origin.


When asked what the initial challenges were, many understandably said that everything being new was difficult. That is, not knowing where to go shopping, or the public transport system or how to find their way around the neighbourhood was in the beginning a huge challenge. As one man said ‘when we first arrived, we didn’t know anything’. However, more specific difficulties and challenges on arrival to the community became apparent with further probing.

Communication difficulties

The main challenge experienced on arrival was overwhelmingly difficulties communicating in English. The inability to understand others, signs, labels on food, for example, were all difficult in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar things. Many voiced that this was extremely hard both for them and also for their children. As one mother said ‘it was a problem for the children as no one for them to play with and no one spoke Nepalese’. The frustration at the inability to communicate with volunteers and other agencies was clear:

They [volunteers] took us shopping but we couldn’t say the words for what we wanted to buy – we just had to point at them. (Adult female)

Volunteer would want to help us, but we couldn’t understand each other. We would ask them, and they would take us to the wrong shops. (Middle-aged female)

At the time I didn’t speak the language – that was hard. I wanted to speak to new friends but I couldn’t and I couldn’t understand some things. (Middle-aged male)

Those that could speak some English also experienced problems, mostly with the speed with which people spoke and the ‘Kiwi’ accent as one man explained it ‘volunteer helped but can’t understand Kiwi accent, trying to change own accent to sound more like a Kiwi’.

Using money and modern technologies

One of the biggest difficulties experienced on arrival to the community was the challenge of using unfamiliar modern technology in the form of ATM and Eftpos machines.

Another challenge on arrival to the community was the use of kitchen appliances and in particular the stove which one interviewee described as being ‘scary’. Whilst this group was shown how to use a stove at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre the reality of using this appliance in their own home was identified as being a challenge. It is likely that the fire safety briefings received during orientation coupled with a large fire that spread through one of the camps in Nepal added to the apprehension of this specific group.

Lack of transportation

In the early stages of settlement transportation was also an issue. With limited or no access to a car and little understanding of the public transport system getting around to visit friends and family and to do shopping was difficult:

We didn’t have a car; it was a bit of a problem. But not too bad, we walked. It was a bit difficult with shopping. (Middle-aged male)

In Nepal if you want to catch a bus you stand by the side of the road and just raise your hand but not here. We had to learn that we had to go to the bus stop. (Adult male)

Loneliness and isolation

Feelings of isolation and loneliness seem to have been a common feeling particularly amongst the woman interviewed. As one woman said of her first few weeks ‘before we left camp we all gathered together … once we arrived here we felt a bit isolated with no acquaintances or relatives around’. Another woman echoed this saying ‘I got so depressed. I wondered why we had come to this country’. Coming from a collectivist environment within a refugee camp with little space and privacy, it is unsurprising that many felt alone and isolated. In addition, the absence of family support from those resettled in other countries or still in the refugee camps was being sorely felt as one mother said ‘we are missing our families, no one to help with the baby’.


The first impressions of New Zealand and resettlement cities appear to have been predominantly positive. However, there were some understandable feelings of being overwhelmed and lost, and there was a necessary period of adjustment to a new culture. Volunteers were an integral component in the new arrivals’ ability to settle and get to know their new community and cities. There was a definite sense of reliance, at least initially, on volunteers which highlights the importance that these people play in the early stages of the resettlement process.

[14] Volunteers provided through Refugee Services Aotearoa work with former refugees for up to 12 months post arrival in the community.