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Bir Bahadur Poudel sits in his living room in a quiet Palmerston North neighbourhood and reflects on how far he’s come over the last 25 years.
He lived a peaceful life with his wife and eight children in Bhutan. They survived off their small farm where they grew grains and vegetables.
In 1992 their lives changed dramatically after threats were made against Bir’s life. Fearing for his family’s safety, he packed them up and fled.
Bir was one of many who were forced to flee Bhutan due to their ethnic background during the 1990s. Over 100,000 people made their way to Nepal, via India, where refugee camps were eventually established.
Options for the Bhutanese fleeing the country were limited though. There were few roads in rural areas and even fewer vehicles.
This meant Bir and his family were forced to flee on foot.
“We had the children who were very young so it was difficult,” he recalls.
“There were other families who came with us and in my family there were 10 people doing the journey.”
“There were so many mountains and rivers and thick forest.”
Bir carried his youngest three children who, at 1, 3, and 4 years of age, weren't able to trek across the rough terrain.
Eventually, the family made it to Nepal but safety was still out of reach.
Life in a refugee camp
The conditions in the first refugee camp the family stayed in were horrid. It was overcrowded and under resourced; the family suffered greatly.
“When we were first in the camp it was a terrible situation and miserable life,” he says.
One of Bir’s daughters died in the camp after contracting a disease; not an uncommon situation.
“It was very hot in this camp, around 42 degrees,” says Bir’s son Gopal.
“People would suffer from disease and there's no proper running water, the environment is polluted and many people suffer from dysentery and fever.”
Eventually, the camp they were in was closed and the UNHCR shifted the family to a different camp that had more amenities. Known as the Beldangi 2 camp, the family was happy to find a cleaner living space with more opportunities for the children to continue their schooling.
“We had very good facilities so our lives were much better compared to in the previous camp,” Bir says.
It was during the family’s time in this camp that they first heard of New Zealand.
“People in the refugee camp told us that New Zealand was a very small country and the best country in the world; that it was a small and peaceful country and that's all I wanted.”
When Bir enquired about resettlement options in New Zealand, the UNHCR advised him to apply for resettlement in the United States because New Zealand officials wouldn't be visiting the camp again for another five years.
Bir had his heart set on becoming a Kiwi though and decided it would be worth the wait.
Five years later the officials visited the camp again and he was interviewed and then later accepted for resettlement.
Beginning again in New Zealand
In 2015, Bir arrived in New Zealand with his wife, son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. It was a happy reunion for some members of his family as they joined two of his children who were already living in New Zealand.
Three of his other daughters and one son are living in the USA. His seventh child lives in Norway.
Bir has adjusted well to his new life and integrated into his new community. At 67 years of age, he spends much of his time being grandpa to Gopal’s children who live next door.
“I take my grandsons to school each day and help them with homework,” he says.
The family is keen to share their culture with the local community, putting together a cultural programme so they can facilitate an understanding of their cultural background through dress, food, and music.
Bir will often join his neighbours when they have gatherings, bringing along plates of traditional food to share.
“I'm very happy to transfer my culture onto my grandchildren. I also see my neighbours having parties in the park and take my cultural food out to share with them.”
“When I go to school to pick-up and drop off the children I meet with the other parents and grandparents. I know some people there now and they greet me by saying kia ora and I say namaste.”
How to help
You can support refugee resettlement in New Zealand too; we’re currently accepting applications for refugee support volunteers here.