Refugees have chance to make life better


As a final project for their Master’s degree in Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Nikolia Apostolou and Lim Wui Liang produced a research-based online documentary titled ‘Refugee Syndrome’. The duo, who explored the psychology of Bhutanese refugees in New York City through the research-based project, talked to Bhutan News Service about the findings of the research. Excerpts:      

BNS: How did you get impress to carry on a research story on Bhutanese refugees in New York City?Liang/Nikolia: We came across the story in The New York Times in September 2009, and thought that we could produce a more in-depth story over time. The day after the story was published; we paid a visit to TP Mishra, and started our project that day. As Mishra’s blog was mentioned in the article, it helped us establish contacts with Bhutanese refugees in Bronx.



BNS: How long did you take to complete the research?

Liang/Nikolia: It took us six months for us to complete the project. We began interviews in September and finished editing the online documentary in March.

BNS: What was the main focus of your research?
Liang/Nikolia: After many interviews with the refugees, we found a common thread: the struggle to shake off the dependency which they have developed while living in refugee camps in Nepal. This became our main focus of the story, and hence the title, “The Refugee Syndrome” was chosen.   

BNS: Tell us the most challenging problem faced by refugees after resettlement?
Liang/Nikolia: For the Bhutanese refugees, we feel that there are two: The struggle to be independent and provide for their own living, and adapting to different cultures and languages.

BNS: What is the main advantage for the resettled refugees?
Liang/Nikolia: They have a home, and are free from persecution. They have the chance to make life better for themselves and for future generations.

BNS: What is the perception of the western world about Bhutan?
Liang/Nikolia: We think that the majority of the Western world sees Bhutan as a mystical Himalayan country with snow-capped mountains. Their renowned Gross Happiness Index further perpetuates the notion of a place of peace and love. But during our research, we also came across “untold” stories that probably challenge Bhutan’s such a philosophy of gross national happiness.


BNS: What do refugees need to do, in particular, before coming to the USA through resettlement program?
Liang/Nikolia: First of all, they need to prepare themselves mentally and physically to the new environment of the United States. To do so, they have to learn English, and get as much information as they can about the culture and work environment of the city that they will be resettling in. Most importantly, they have to go there with an open mind, and shed whatever identity they have as refugees and start living.

BNS: Your research was solely focused on refugees based in New York City. Didn’t you conclude that this is a wrong place for resettlement?
Liang/Nikolia: New York City is a tough city for anyone. And to resettle refugees here may seem like a wrong choice. However, we believe that the experience of adapting to life here would help them in the future.

BNS: Tell us the most interesting finding during the course of your research.
Liang/Nikolia: It would be the events in Bhutan over the last 20 years that led to the exile of these refugees. Not much has been described in detail in mainstream media.

BNS: Do you feel these refugees will have better future here in the USA?
Liang/Nikolia: Yes, because they are free, and with hard work, they will be able to have a much better life.

Editor’s note: Click here to watch their online documentary.


  1. Hats off guys. Well researched and presented.
    This is closet to the reality after resettlement of Bhutanese around the world.
    I think the story is simillar everywhere.

    A+ from my side for your Thesis project.

    Adelaide, Australia

  2. The story is very touching. I am truly impressed.

    To say a few words in passing, i would quote…

    Hope is like the clouds, some pass by, others bring rain….

    With regards,

  3. True voice is begine to came out.
    To those, who are still in missundestand about our cause?.
    It would be better for GNH’s advocate to be continue.
    “Sun will rise in our station,
    it take time to came”.
    With best wish,
    Dinesh subba

  4. Perhaps this is the worst story a person with master degree in journalism can come up with. In journalism, ‘ethics’ is crucial and it is missing here. It is unethical to make a conclusion based on the stories from one side of the coin.

  5. The piece is surfacely research. in my view they have to search the fact about our people are getting physically assult in USA which we do not get in Bhutan also.We face so many difficulties in different countries like Bhutan, Nepal but we are facing inhuman treatment in USA.

  6. i agree with Lotus Flower. what a load of crap it is! cmon you two preeety faces you got your degree now, go looking for trash stories coz if you cant get the fact right here you are loser outright.nobody but the bhutanese themeselves can right the stories about themselves better than anyone. just becoz you got some funding to do a masters does not justify you to prey on the stories of vulnerables to earn you a degree. NOW YOU GOT YOUR DEGREE, GO HELP THE BHUTANESE COMMUNITIES.

  7. Pl. differentiate between academic research and implementation research. What is wrong if someone is trying to learn the situation we came across. They might have felt this as a heavy issue and worth of research. The university has accepted their proposal mentioning that the topic is viable/feasible. Without green signal one cannot continue with such dissertation. Why you are pointing the fingers to the researchers instead why can’t you challenge the university who offered this topic? If you have courage and wisdom please challenge their methodology adopted, test of measurements and prove that as antithesis.
    They might have narrowed down their scope with what they acquired and it is not mandatory that the conclusion drawn be as per your desire and favor.
    So critism should be positive and constructive. Comment shouldn’t be for just writeups only.

  8. The documentary titled Refugee Syndrome is very very touchy. Comparision and conclusions between two situations looked on from an individual perspectives clerly portrays choices left for tehBhutanese living in Nepal after the Bhutanese king uprooted and evicted more than 20 percent of its citizens since the late eighties and weere compelled to live in a protracted situation. No doubt there are hardships when getting adoped in a new cultural enviornment. The economic hardships expressed are unbelievable for some one new as they ae in the process of getting setted fully in a country they are adopting to.

    It is good work by Liang and Nikolia. It is a good advocay tool.

  9. Nikolia and Liang, Thanks for bringing the reality. This is the reality of Bhutanese.Life was not easy in Bhutan, Refugee camp and will not be as easy in core countries. Challenges exist every where in which opportunities are well hidden.Therefore, my request to all Bhutanese is, face the reality, try for it, never lose your hope and dream, a day will come by when we all will be proud.Proud to face challenge, proud to grab opportunities and proud to ….

    DP Mainali
    The Netherland

  10. I would suggest Liang and Nikolia do indepth research on the petty politics that Bhutanese refugees play. Had the persons who now claim themselves “leader” not played petty politics or “leg pulling” politics, the festering refugee problem would have been solved years ago. Or simply put: they shouldn’t have to leave Bhutan in the first place. Dirty politics is in their vein – if you don’t believe read the comments under RP Subba’s article.

    They are in the US for just a little over year and they have already started acussing Americans who have volunteered to help the refugees. Too bad. They will soon start demanding for their rights to become president and more…and more…

  11. For SOME Bhutanese, it never is enough:
    UNHCR and donor countries feed them for two decades in the refugee camps – not enough!

    DAFI, CARITAS, JRS and UNHCR provide them with scholarship and education – not enough.

    US govt (through ORR) provides resettlement assistance – not enough.

    Good hearted people donate used clothing, used computers, used furniture – not enough (they want, and think they deserve, new)

    Churches try to help – bad.. (‘they are trying to convert us’)

    Temples try to assist them – bad (“Hindus = Indians = bad.” or “oh, the Brahmins are at it again!”)

    Concerned folks organize to help – not enough. (“thieving leaders who want to exploit us”)

    Resettlement agencies, with their underpaid staff, try to provide what little complemnentary assistance they can – not enough. (“you are ‘eating’ our money”)

    Employment agencies find them an entry level job – not enough. (“I am used to being a teacher, doctor, find me a job that suits my degree”)

    And they keep harping on how it was a mistake to come to the US. You need to work. Those of you able ones who don’t have a job – look around at the immigrants from south of the border lining up in the streets in the mornings to be picked up to work.

    Look at the kid in the movie – Tek. He says he can’t do well in school because he is also a food server. He should know that almost all American kids work in fast food joints like MacDonalds, Burger King or Starbucks while they put themselves through school and college. No one has had it easy here either. Work hard, get the bloat off, and be a little jovial and little more grateful for the opportunities you have! People in Nepal sell all their property and line up for a VISA at the US Embassy to come to the US, all on their own from the day they enter the country. You were picked up and brought here, and provided for for more than a few months. No body has the obligation to you, except yourself. Be positive. Get out there – put away the Budweiser can. If you get to a job interview with a long face, no one will hire you. Smile – you have discarded the ‘refugee’ rag that has covered you for two decades. Breathe the fresh air offreedopm. Show that you will work hard, learn, and be successful, so people can trust you to hire you.

    This little movie is well done, but it brings out the only bad side of things. I know we focus on sensational things, but there are great stories of Bhutanese doing well too. The comparison should be to the life they left behind – the never ending ennui of the refugeee camp. If you start comparing your lot with Bill Gates, then of course there will be depression. Now, you have a country that will call you its own, you will have an identity. You are not stateless anymore. Now, all you need to do is pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get runnig to where your dreams will take you.

    If you don’t have a dream, then get one! But for God’s sake, stop whining and complaining. If you have genuine complaints, do it as a community. But how could you? You are so busy tearing down the few individuals who speak out for you in places that matter.

  12. @wakka- dikka

    The very youth all around the world who work in MacDonalds and blady any sort of work, there is pressure on them too.

    You seem to conclude that they are happy struggling. Guess what make a documentary to prove it…

    It is normal for people from a completely different background like a refugee background to get into depression or feel a certain level of uncertainty in life.
    White, Black, Brown …all kinds of people suffer emotionally or physically.
    Did you know that in a court of law in western countries you can get compensation for consequential mental harm another person may perpetrate on you…

    So mentally people do suffer and the consequences last for a long time…

    You seem to be writing from your own black hole, without the slightest recognition of people’s emotions or ideas.

    So no lectures. Thank you.

    Struggle your life, don’t lecture another one to do the same. Because, its not you who decides. They will do what they will.

  13. Now I have a bit time to go through the research and comments about it and found to be interesting form different retrospectives . Although we have right and freedom speech and I don’t want to interrupt, deprive, hurt or close the mouth of anyone of us. But I just want to share that its far more better to spend our time for self development and improvement than to blame or criticize the work and effort of others. Change is not always comfortable but nothing can be changed just by changing place. So its better to change our views, way of watching events and understanding them.
    When one breaks mouth to describe something, in fact he/she is describing himself/herself. His/her own perspectives,values and understanding.
    Moti Adhikari
    Resettled In Lexington,KY