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Bhutanese Refugee Cultural Considerations


  • Bhutanese refugees are a growing Vermont refugee group that recently started resettling from Southeast Asia.  In 2008, 129 Bhutanese refugees moved to Vermont.
  • Many Bhutanese have sought safety in seven refugee camps in eastern Nepal.  The Refugees are not able to return to Bhutan or become permanent residents of Nepal, so these camps are their home.  The Bhutanese government has not allowed any refugee to return since expulsion about 18 years ago.
  • Although resettlement in the U.S. offers a solution, it is an unacceptable one to some Bhutanese who are advocating a return to their home country.  Resettlement remains a divisive issue in the camps.
  • Children constitute more than 1/3 of the displaced Bhutanese population.  As this population continues to grow, resettlement issues will also continue.
  • Almost 97% of the refugees are ethnic Nepalis who speak Nepali as a first or second language.  Approximately 1/3 of refugees know some English.
  • 60% of Bhutanese are Hindu, 27% are Buddhist, and approximately 10% are Kirat, an indigenous religion.  The remaining percent are Christian.
  • In the camps, children have access to education conducted in Nepali and English.  The traditional Bhutanese educational curriculum, although modified, is followed.
  • Bhutanese culture includes a social caste system that shapes social relationships and behavior.  High caste Bhutanese are much more likely to take advantage of higher education than low caste Bhutanese.
  • When considering housing for Bhutanese it is important to keep in mind that placing members of different social castes in the same house may create conflict.
  • Bhutanese from different castes may not be able to share a meal together.  Some Bhutanese, particularly those who are older and in high social castes, will not eat food that has meat, eggs, or any cooked food.  Vegetarian food is enjoyed.
  • Permission should be granted before coming to or entering Bhutanese homes and prayer areas, which may be in the kitchen.
  • Most Bhutanese refugees self-identify as farmers or students; most have not been able to acquire job skills in the camps.
  • Gender roles are traditionally defined.  Women and girls perform the majority of the household work while men are the primary decision makers in the family and community.
  • In some cases, divorced or widowed women are assigned a low social status and may  lose the support of family members.
  • Some Bhutanese customs ,such as arranged marriage, marrying young, and the occasional practice of polygamy may conflict with the American way, legal system and culture.
  • Mental health and mental illness are not well understood or acknowledged among the Bhutanese.  The trying conditions in which Bhutanese have lived, however, have likely negatively impacted the mental health of this group.  Depression, anxiety, and/or post traumatic stress are of particular concern.