For Bhutanese refugees, civics lessons come with police assistance

Matt Hudson Roseville police officer Won Chau spoke to a group of Bhutanese refugees during an English language learning class on Jan. 16. The officer has been visiting the group for about a year to take questions about adjusting to life in the United States.

After a short break period, some 35 Bhutanese refugees sat down in a basement room of the Rose Hill Alliance Church in Roseville.

Police officer Won Chau took the podium at the front of the room. Some may have seen the news, he said, that two pedestrians were killed by a vehicle on Jan. 3.

So he handed out some informational sheets about the laws and courtesies governing relations between vehicles and pedestrians. Through an interpreter, he slowly explained when cars can lawfully turn when there’s a person in the crosswalk, as well as how drivers usually bend the law. He took questions about hypothetical traffic situations.

To the Bhutanese group, many of whom were resettled in the United States and know little or no English, a topic like crosswalk etiquette is valuable information.

“It’s really basic, everyday life,” said Chau, a Roseville officer who has been visiting the group monthly for about a year. “Who do we call? How do we look out for solicitors?”

Independent of Chau, the group meets each Wednesday at the church. The Bhutanese Community Organization of Minnesota organizes it for English-language learning and naturalization prep.

But it’s also important to build social ties, said Puspa Bhandari, program director for the organization. Particularly, many of the elderly Bhutanese don’t leave home much.

“They get a chance to socialize here,” he said. “They get a chance to learn English.”

Some 85,000 Bhutanese refugees have been resettled in the United States over the past two decades. They’d been living in refugee camps, mostly in Nepal, after leaving Bhutan amid systemic threats to the Lhotshampa, an ethnic minority.

Bhandari estimated that around 3,000 resettled in the Twin Cities, mostly in and around Roseville. For the weekly meetings, the church donates its space, provides food and refreshments and helps with transportation, he said.

Chau started his visits after Kumar Tamang, another Bhutanese Community Organization staff member, came to him with a domestic issue.

A Bhutanese community member was trying to deal with a family member’s drinking while also trying to navigate their options with American police and culture.

Chau said they had basic questions, like how to call the police or what if the caller doesn’t speak English?

Shortly after, the officer began stopping by the meetings a regular basis to speak and take questions about phone scams, driving rules and cultural norms.

He knows the challenges. Chau moved to the United States from Cambodia as a child. It’s more difficult to assimilate as an adult, he said, but his experience makes a difference, especially “when you tell a group of people from a different country that I took the same path,” he said. 

“I kind of know what they’re going through.”


–Matt Hudson can be reached at or 651-748-7825.

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