Challenges and opportunities of Bhutanese in America


Binod KhatiwadaChicago, the home state of two influential presidents of the USA- Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln, has been receiving a lot of immigrants from all over the world. In 2012, mostly refugees from Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, and Ethiopia started their lives afresh in Chicago. Around fifteen hundreds Bhutanese refugees have resettled here so far. The challenges faced by the  Bhutanese refugees in any state seem identical. So, I want to basically focus about the Bhutanese refugee in Chicago as a means to describe the challenges and opportunities of Bhutanese refugee resettled in America. This is based on my own experience of working as a Reception and Placement Case manager at one of the refugee resettlement agencies in Chicago.

Any immigrant faces not only employment and communications problems but also emotional and cultural shocks. Bhutanese come from entirely different cultures and environments. America is economically very competitive and it’s hard for Bhutanese to find jobs. English language is another barrier for Bhutanese to find jobs in new country. Besides being a land of opportunities, the USA  is also land of challenges. Bhutanese face challenges mainly in communication and education, employments, cultural differences, integration in American society and economic needs in America.

Firstly, communication is one of the challenges of Bhutanese in early days of resettlement in America. It requires communication to do all daily activities. English is not the mother tongue of the Bhutanese. After the arrival in America, limited English or lack of English communication skills leads to miserable life. Most of the Bhutanese find really hard to communicate and buy items from grocery in early days. Lack of communication makes life harder to run daily activities. In some cases, Bhutanese speak some level of English but the American accent is different from most of the countries and lead towards the confusions and frustrations. For Bhutanese who never attended the English schools or spoke English language, communication skill is big barrier for them. Both parents and children say that learning to speak English is often the biggest hurdle in the new country. Once that is accomplished the family begin to adapt more of the American culture into their new lifestyles (Coulter 2). Often time, they start by attending English as Second Language classes to learn from very beginning. For Adult, it takes a long time to learn languages, which gives unnecessary mental stress.

Challenges are not limited to communication only but getting formal and higher education is another challenge. Continuing formal and higher education for children and adult is another big challenge. Bhutanese children under eighteen can join Public schools to complete their high school education. The high school education system in the US is different than the one run  by the Caritas Nepal in the refugee camps. The United Sates use most of the technological equipments to deliver education such as audio-visual. Bhutanese children can’t use computer and other electronic equipments. They also go through transition from their home country’s education system to the US education system. Bhutanese come from yearly education system, which focuses for one or two final exams per year whereas the US semester based educational system is hard for them to understand and get success at.

Bhutanese adults who already received high school and higher degrees prior to getting resettled and want to continue education in US also face many challenges. During the certification reevaluation process, some times they won’t get any credit from back home. And even if they do, it will be few credited hours. Most of the time, adult college students need to re-take the same classes, which is frustrating and time consuming. Hinojosa, who earned a psychology degree in Mexico, is working on a GED here (Coulter 2). The GED is General Educational Degree in the US which is equivalent to High School diploma in America.

For Bhutanese adults of age 20 to 35, those with an incomplete degree due to the resettlement process, there lie real challenges to continue their education. Many present college students happen to be former students of those with incomplete degrees. So, they do not want to go to schools together with their own previous students. Indeed, it looks awkward but there are other options like online education to continue education. It is well said that education is life long process and one should not hesitate to grab that opportunity.

There is also another big misunderstanding to the Bhutanese students about differences of Community colleges and Universities. Some of the adults who already attended universities in Nepal feel that going back to community colleges is to start from zero. But difference of community colleges and University is not big. Actually, community colleges are much more cheaper and affordable than universities and also hold the same value of freshman and sophomore courses of universities.

For those who want continue education also face financial problems; and they need to get loan at a  high interest rate. In my own experience as an adult college student, it is challenging for immigrant students to get in track of the US college systems and be successful. Sometimes, the schedule conflicts of job and colleges also make continuing education tough and impossible.  Rohit Rimal of Chicago had to give up his dream of going to college twice due to his hectic job schedule.

It is noteworthy that all refugee college students will be eligible for financial support from federal and state government. Both educational supports are first come –first serve basis and can be filled out through web link starting from January for each educational year. The FAFSA application automatically sends the information to state financial support. Both Federal and State grants go up to eleven thousands per year depending upon family financial status and contributions. Below are the criteria to be eligible for the FAFSA program:

  • Demonstrate financial need (for most programs);
  • Be a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen;
  • Have a valid Social Security number (with the exception of students from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, or the Republic of Palau);
  • Be registered with Selective Service, if you’re a male (you must register between the ages of 18 and 25). Almost all Bhutanese refuges in the US meet all above criteria. This financial support programs go up to six years. This is one of the grants (unlike the loan, grants are free and should not be re-payed.) in the US for almost all Bhutanese refugees those want to continue college education.

 The US education system offers free higher education to those who have perform educational excellence and good GPA which is one of the best opportunities for immigrants to achieve success. The US education system is very practical and job oriented; and most of the time  trainings are available for free and at low cost. Few Bhutanese have already became successful businessman by taking advantage of the US loan system to start business. All the opportunities are not that easily available, it requires a lot of struggle and hard work and commitment. But it definitely pays at the end. The key opportunities and success for Bhutanese are hard work, struggle and commitment. One who works hard, struggles and commits to his/her goal see the US as land of opportunities not only land of challenges definitely succeeds. It’s very easy to find challenges and problems than to find opportunities and solutions by Bhutanese.

Employment is very essential and is hard to find. As most of the Bhutanese come with very limited English and is challenging for them to find jobs in competitive market. Employers always want to hire employee with good communication skills and work history. Most of the Bhutanese lack both good communications skills and work history in their resume, which is another challenges for them in early days. Most of the Bhutanese go to English class in early years and is hard for them to manage time to do jobs. Resettlement organizations working for finding employment for new immigrants say that it is hard to find job for Bhutanese because of problems with English proficiency and work history. Majority of professionals such as doctors and engineers won’t find suitable jobs in the US because of licensing issues. Despite their advanced degrees and previous career experiences, they are compelled to work entry-level jobs in offices and hotels, working in restaurant kitchens and laboring in manufacturing plants (Bouchard-3).

Emotional and cultural shocks are very common to Bhutanese in America. Lack of communication skills and hard to find a job often lead to emotional problems. Bhutanese come with big expectations of earning a lot of money and having standard family. But they face unexpected problems in maintaining their lives.

 The culture of the United States is totally different than Bhutanese cultures. The life style and society of America is free and independent than Bhutanese life style. Men and women are equally treated and given equal rights as compare to the Bhutanese cultures. Bhutanese usually observe big difference in the cultural aspect and eventually face cultural shocks also. In few cases, emotional stress and cultural shocks even lead to chronic depression. Suicide of nineteen Bhutanese is one of the results of emotional stress and cultural shocks. The Office of Refugee Resettlement mentions that suicidal rate in the Bhutanese community is the highest among the other resettled communities. Integrating into American society is long term and very challenging process for immigrants.

Employment and educational issues are short-term problems whereas integrating into American society is long term and very challenging process. Immigrants from different countries have their own festivals and social norms, which are different than American and Bhutanese festivals. Bhutanese may earn money after five-ten years but it’s hard for them to change their festivals and their social values, which make it hard for them to get integrated in to  the American society. Some of the immigrants adopt the bicultural habit, which is good to overcome some challenges. Most of the Bhutanese started getting lost in the middle of integration process and end with some psychological problems. The way of integrating into the American society differs from people to people but it is very complicated and long-term process. Studies show that first generation immigrants face a hard time in integrating but second generation feels easier.

Not only integration but also managing finance is another big challenge of Bhutanese.

In initial days, it’s hard to pay rent. In long run, they earn and make good money but the expenditure increases as they try to adopt the American life style. Most of the countries in the world including Nepal and Bhutan run cash for daily financial transactions; however, the US mainly uses debit and credit cards. The American way of using debit and credit card confuses most of the Bhutanese in early days to manage their money. Often time, most of the Bhutanese rely on government funding’s and benefit programs (food stamps) to carry their daily activities. It’s hard for them to save money for their children’s colleges and other expenses in the future.

The new Bhutanese Americans have lot of challenges in the field of communication and education, employment, cultural and emotional aspect, integrating into new society and economic needs. Nonetheless, there are some opportunities as well. It’s not easy for the new immigrants to start lives in America but hard works and struggle always make it easier and successful in long term.


  • Bouchard, Kelley. “Advocates for Newcomers tear at Barriers to Opportunity.” ProQuest Newsstand. Web. 25 May 2013
  • Coulter, Phyllis. “Immigrant families face extra challenges while living in Central Illinois.” ProQuest Newsstand. Web. 26 May 2013.
  • Federal government educational site

[Born in Chirang, Bhutan, the author currently resides in Chicago, IL. He is an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), and attends summer program at Northwestern University about the Refugee Status Determination Process. He has also worked as Resettlement and Placement Case Manager at a resettlement agency in Chicago for two years. ]

Editor’s note: The opinion expressed and facts presented herein are solely based on author’s findings, and don’t necessarily represent official say of the Bhutan News Service.


  1. A good reflection of problems any immigrant population faces during transition. The problems are however transitory and should be done away as years pass by. As for culture -America does not assimilate people. So we are free to practice it in ways it used to be. The State has nothing to do with it and should not be blamed.

    But it wants to see you integrated into the American nationalism. So, Assimilation – No. Integration – Yes.

    In Bhutan it was just the opposite.

    Assimilation (forced) – Yes. Integration – NO. And that was the problem.

    Assimilationist nations pose problems for the people and produce deeper cultural conflicts; which in turn acts as a barrier to effective integration of populations, in plural and diverse societies. Integrationist nations believe in laying a strong foundation of nationalism. This is America. Our integration will be painless if we understand this phenomena.

    The problem of integration of course is linked to education level and language abilities in English. Integration is not physical – it is mainly educational and social. It is not just eating ham burgers or food from McDonald, or enjoying rock music. One Bhutanese intellectual told me, ‘I am integrated into America because now I think like an American; if not, I am very much into that process’. That is right. If you have understood the American mainstream and your social, political, economic, psychological behavior align with it – you are integrated.

    For those with little or no English, it will remain a problem; but this does not hold you back from becoming an ‘equal’ American like any one else..