United States Cultural Orientation in Nepal: Preparing Refugees for a New Life in the USA

Trainers in Nepal provide pre-departure orientation sessions to refugees being resettled to the United States.

Refugees in Nepal, India and Sri Lanka accepted for resettlement to the United States commonly face considerable challenges in adapting to their new homeland, as their cultures and way of life are vastly different from those of the US. The United States Cultural Orientation (USCO) team provides pre-departure orientation sessions to these refugees to help them adapt successfully to life in the US.

Key Objectives

USCO courses have three objectives:

  1. Provide factual information about the new country: the assistance refugees will receive upon arrival; their rights as newcomers; their work and educational opportunities
  2. Teach essential skills needed to succeed: How to answer questions at a job interview; how to find housing; how to dial the emergency number 911, for example
  3. Explore certain attitudes: Dealing with changes in family roles; adjusting to a society whose values may conflict with theirs; the need to be pro-active and take charge of one’s own future.

Project Description

"Our contact with the refugees is short but very powerful; it changes lives. Some keep in touch with us even years after."
-- Peter Salnikowski, US Cultural Orientation Programme Coordinator

This IOM project is part of the worldwide USCO programme, started in 1990, that takes place also in Kenya, Thailand, Russia, Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

The USCO team in Nepal conducts cultural orientation sessions in Nepal, India and Sri Lanka; training lasts from three to five days. Currently, sessions are offered to adults only; starting early 2010, special sessions will also be offered to children, youth, and persons with disabilities. Many different aspects of life in the new country are covered, with a focus on immediate needs in the first months after arrival. Sessions include a psycho-social component whereby refugees can reflect upon their migration experience.

The sessions themselves are models of what will be expected of newcomers in the US. Participants are not directly told very much; rather, they are given resources and are asked to find the answers for themselves. Learning happens through exploration and discussion and sessions are very lively and active. "Now I feel confident and can‘t wait to get going", says one refugee before he had even completed the course.


In 1991, some 100,000 Bhutanese of Nepali origin were forced from their homes. Most fled to Nepal where they were housed in camps in Eastern Nepal. As they were unable to return to Bhutan, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) suggested resettlement as a durable solution. The United States agreed to accept some 60,000 of the refugees and resettlement activities began in 2007.

IOM became an integral partner in this process. It offers a package of services, including the clerical processing of refugees for resettlement, conducting medical screening, offering cultural orientation courses, and arranging transportation of the refugees to their destination. In 2009, IOM was invited to expand its services in South Asia to India and Sri Lanka.

Principal Activities

  • Conducting classes of 3 to 5 days duration


  • Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin
  • Urban refugee population in Kathmandu accepted for resettlement to the United States
  • Refugees from Burma, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other countries living in India and Sri Lanka.
  • Indirectly, service providers in the US who will be assisting the recently arrived refugees who are already prepared for their new life

Concrete Benefits

  • Refugees become better informed about their new country; unrealistic expectations are dispelled.
  • Refugees learn practical skills that help them adjust to and be accepted by the new society.
  • Refugees experience less fear and greater confidence regarding their upcoming move
  • Refugees avoid many of the problems that sometimes occur during flights and on-arrival