Rose (Bishnu) Pradhan (Photo: Jess Timings)
Rose (Bishnu) Pradhan (Photo: Jess Timings)

SocietyJune 19, 2020

Essential Kiwi Legend: The Bhutanese refugee driving trucks in Nelson

Rose (Bishnu) Pradhan (Photo: Jess Timings)
Rose (Bishnu) Pradhan (Photo: Jess Timings)

Coming from a refugee camp in Nepal, truck driver Rose (Bishnu) Pradhan is living proof that, with hard work and determination, it’s possible you can achieve anything you set your mind to. 

During lockdown, supermarket shelves remained stocked and full of food for New Zealanders to eat while they were staying home and saving lives. In Nelson that was thanks, in part, to Rose (Bishnu) Pradhan.

Rose is a truck driver for TNL, a mother of two children, a New Zealander, a former refugee, and an essential worker.

This is her story.

Rose (Bishnu) Pradhan. (Photo: Jess Timings)

A dream job

Rose doesn’t fit the “normal” mould of a truck driver. And yet, for many years, she’s known exactly she wanted to do. “I knew I wanted to be a truck driver,” explains Rose with a grin. “I enjoy driving, I got my class two truck driver licence in 2014.”

Equipped with determination and having taken the first steps towards her dream job, Rose approached the team at New Zealand Red Cross who she knew could help her find employment. She’d already proven to be an excellent driver, having volunteered with the local Red Cross Open Road programme as a bilingual driving mentor.

Rose is grateful for the support of Geoff Morgan, an open road driving trainer, who supported Rose on her employment journey, including going out of his way to help her achieve her class two truck license.

Through volunteering, she helped many members of her community attain their New Zealand driver’s licence, an important step in the journey to settling in New Zealand. Rose even helped her mum learn how to drive which, she admits, was a bit nerve-wracking. “My mum is driving a car because of Red Cross. But oh my gosh,” laughs Rose, “when we first started to drive my heart was like boom, boom!”

Her mum, Mon Maya Pradhan, laughs along with her as they talk about learning to drive together. Mon Maya is now a confident, independent driver but says that the difference between New Zealand roads and the roads in Nepal and Bhutan – where her family lived before coming to New Zealand– is stark. “Where we are from in Bhutan and Nepal, there are bicycles, not so much driving! Here there are cars everywhere. Practising driving was very hard.”

A “normal life”

When asked about life before New Zealand, Rose says she lived anyone else. But in reality, Rose’s life was, for many years, anything but normal.

Rose was born in Bhutan, where her family lived peacefully for many years as farmers. “I don’t really remember that time,” she says. “My parents grew corn and rice. I remember we had animals, a cow and goat. We had a big, big area to grow things in Bhutan. My parents grew everything for themselves.”

It’s no surprise that Rose struggles to remember her life in Bhutan as she was only around eight years old when she and her family left. The Pradhans are just one family among the approximately 108,000 refugees who have fled Bhutan since 1991. Most fled to the neighbouring countries, Nepal or India, escaping new laws that discriminated against Lhotshampa, people of ethnic Nepali descent.

In Nepal, Rose spent almost 20 years in a refugee camp. Resources were incredibly scarce with the family allocated just five kilograms of rice every 15 days and a few fresh vegetables each week. There were limited opportunities for people living in the camps, but Rose was able to continue her education for a few years until, at just 16, she was married. “They came to ask mum and dad if they were happy with an arranged marriage. After one year of marriage, my son was born, and after three years my daughter was born.”

When Rose talks about her children, it’s clear that she adores them. But living the way that was expected of her didn’t come naturally to Rose. She knew, even then, that she wanted her life and the life of her kids to be more than what they had. “I was like a house mother, I had to look after the children and I had to cook and clean. Then IOM (the International Organisation for Migration) and UNHCR (the United Nations High Commission for Refugees) started the process,” says Rose in reference to the process of resettling people from camps in Nepal to other countries like New Zealand. “I can still remember now, they called us and I wanted to go somewhere.”

It was clear to Rose that she needed to leave Nepal. She says she’d seen the lives of the people around her, and she knew that it wasn’t what she wanted. But her family had other plans. “My mum and my dad said, ‘no, don’t go, we have to return to our country, Bhutan.’ I didn’t listen to them, I filled out the form and made an appointment.”

In the meeting with UNHCR and IOM representatives, Rose recalls being shown the profiles of eight potential resettlement countries. She was told to choose. “I didn’t know anything [about the country] but I chose New Zealand. I don’t know why!” Rose laughs. “A lot of my family are in America, but I chose New Zealand.”

In time, Rose was informed that her application had been accepted. Knowing that she would soon be leaving Nepal, Rose’s parents worried for her, so they too began the application process. And, despite having applied after her, Mon Maya and her husband left for New Zealand six months before Rose.

By October 2010, the Pradhan family reunited in Nelson, Aotearoa.

Rose (Bishnu) Pradhan and her family. (Photo: Jess Timings)

A newspaper clipping

Just a few years after arriving in Nelson, life had transformed for Rose. Her children were thriving at school and she’d worked all sorts of jobs from sewing aeroplane seat covers to shucking mussels. But through it all, Rose continued to work toward her greater goal of becoming a truck driver.

With her class two licence in hand, Rose got together with Claire Nichols, New Zealand Red Cross pathways to employment manager in Nelson, to hatch a plan. Rose met with the local paper, who published her story of learning to drive and seeking employment.

The article caught the eye of Derek Nees, TNL trainer. “I mulled over it for a few days,” says Derek, “and I thought, ‘You know, the industry is always looking for drivers, perhaps this is something different?’”

Derek and his colleague Martin Tutton, TNL supervisor for the metro area, met Rose for an initial interview. She wasn’t their usual hire, but Martin, known to most as Marty, says he knew immediately that there was something special about this candidate.

Rose (Bishnu) Pradhan and the TNL team (Photo: Jess Timings)

“When we first met Rose, what impressed us most was her determination. She knew where she wanted to go. You don’t get that so much,” admits Marty. “There was something about Rose that was so different.” After discussing with their team, the TNL Nelson team offered Rose a six-month contract as a class two driver.

It was a steep learning curve, as Rose discovered very quickly. Every day there were new challenges to overcome, and every night for the first few weeks Rose arrived home exhausted, with aching muscles. But she never gave up, thanks in large part to the support of her colleagues Marty, Derek, branch manager Mark Holland and Peter Harwood, a fellow driver.

Now Rose is on a full-time contract and, according to Marty, is excelling. Most recently, Rose was awarded employee of the month for her work ethic and customer service. “Rose and my metro team are the face of TNL. They see more customers than other drivers. And we don’t get complaints, in fact, Rose gets more compliments than anything else.”

Rose says one of her many favourite things about the job are the reactions she gets from customers and people on the road when they see her in the driver’s seat. “When I drive by people are tooting and waving at me, customers always say they are happy to see a woman driver. It makes me proud.”

With the support of TNL, Rose now has her dangerous goods and forklift licences, and most recently, gained her full class four truck licence. She’s incredibly grateful for the help, advice and kindness shown to her by the team at TNL who she says has looked after her like family. “I still remember the first day we sat inside that interview room. That was my lucky day.”

A time to give back

When it was announced that New Zealand would be going into Covid-19 alert level four lockdown, the drivers at TNL were given a choice: they could stay home or keep working. “I wanted to work,” Rose says. “Because of that situation, I got a chance to help people, to help New Zealand.”

So while most people stayed home, Rose set out on the roads to deliver essential goods to supermarkets and other local Nelson businesses that remained open. She says that there were some plus sides to working during lockdown, namely the clear roads. “All the road was mine!” Rose recalls with a grin. “It’s a really hard time usually, so it was like freedom!”

But some things were more difficult during lockdown. Her customers were cautious, keeping a safe distance without the usual friendly interactiosn. Plus, there was one other issue – something most of us would’ve never anticipated. “All public toilets were closed, so there were times when my tummy was very painful – holding, holding!”

Despite the difficulties working through lockdown posed, Rose says she’s pleased to have played a part in helping New Zealand get through level four. “We are very lucky to be Kiwis. I feel very proud because it was a very crazy time.”

(Photo: Jess Timings)

Looking to the future, Rose says she only sees opportunities for herself and her family. “I know we are already successful. All refugees are very hard-working people, not just my family. I am very proud of my family – they are settled here now and they don’t have to think, ‘What do I have to do, where do I have to go?’”

Through her journey to employment and settling in New Zealand, she hopes to be an example of what hard work can accomplish.

“I really want to show people that if you work hard, you can achieve your goals.”

All across Aotearoa, thousands of former refugees are doing amazing things in their communities. Some are essential workers who supported Kiwis during the Covid-19 lockdown. Over the next few days, in the run-up to World Refugee Day on June 20 and in collaboration with the New Zealand Red Cross, we’re sharing some of their stories.

Read more:

Essential Kiwi Legend: The Afghan refugee who became an emergency nurse

Essential Kiwi Legend: The Syrian refugee turned Dunedin grocery store worker

Essential Kiwi Legend: The Myanmar refugees turned bus driver and caregiver

Keep going!