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Driving Lessons for Refugees: Women Helping Women

Five years ago, Rita volunteered with World Relief in the Economic Empowerment department, where she assisted refugees in finding jobs.

“I was just a terrible job finder. I didn’t get anybody a job,” Rita recounted laughingly. “But somehow, I got the names of ladies that needed to drive.”

Rita began to meet up with these women on the weekends to teach them driving skills. After an hour or two of practicing on the road, Rita and her student would have tea and chat while the kids played in the living room. Rita laughs when remembering those Saturdays saying, “It was a real social thing.”

Word got around about Rita’s driving lessons, and soon 23 women had obtained licenses with her guidance. Unfortunately, in 2020, the private lessons came to a halt due to the COVID-19 shutdowns. During that time, Rita was still receiving requests for lessons from the refugee community. Determined to reach more people, Rita contacted Morella Perez-Suels, Manager of the Education Services Center saying, “I have eight names of people who need to drive.” However, new obstacles had arisen, including insurance.

Still, Morella and Rita were unified on the need for driving instruction and so contacted 911 Driving School for next steps.

Rita and four students at a driving class.

911 Driving School was more than willing to work with World Relief. The staff had personal connections to the cause and a great deal of empathy for the isolation of refugee women unable to drive, but costs were prohibitive. The driving school provided World Relief an impressive discount, but it wasn’t enough to make it affordable.

“It’s not cheap,” Morella said when describing the volume of clients who want to participate in the driving courses. By that time, the requests for driving lessons had grown astronomically. “We can’t cover all the requests.”

Rita had to get creative to ensure that the classes could be offered at an affordable price. After two months of training, Rita became a licensed 911 driving instructor. As an employee, Rita is paid by 911 to instruct classes offered at the Education Center. But when Rita receives compensation, she turns around and donates the money back to World Relief!

“The only thing we can feel is gratitude,” said Morella after receiving the first check.

Preparing confident drivers

Rita insists that the most important thing about these classes is the impact it has on the women. “One of the ladies’ husband died and she’s got four kids. So driving is a necessity for her, cause how do you get groceries when you’ve got four kids (and no car)?” Many women coming through World Relief are the primary caregivers for their children. Many have never held a job outside the home, never ridden public transportation, or even ventured out of their homes alone on a regular basis. Attending driving classes gives these women the opportunity to develop support systems while learning new skills that will benefit their families and themselves.

“They were terrified,” Rita said, remembering the first time the women drove on the highway. “But they did well. Going sixty miles an hour was real terrifying. But they did it! And I think they were really proud of themselves for having accomplished it.”

Rita helping women learn to drive while touring a car.

Due to the expensive nature of the class, the Education Center is only able to offer driving courses for those who lack the necessary skills to participate in a normal driving course.

The students spend a considerable amount of time preparing to drive. This includes activities like touring different cars in the parking lot, going over the functions of different car parts and concepts such as turning and stopping. Rita constantly adjusts the curriculum to meet the needs of the students.

Rita and Morella noticed a growth in confidence in the women who attended the first driving class. Each driving session ends with anticipation for the next one.

Rita looks forward to the lessons as well. “They were absolutely adorable when we got done…all hugs and kisses…can’t wait for the next time. They are just sweet ladies.”

New skills, new opportunities

Transportation opens up multiple opportunities to families living in the Spokane area. Driving makes shopping easier and jobs more accessible. It ensures the safety of children after school. The family’s overall quality of life is improved.

Rita is thankful for the interpreters provided through the Education Center. “It’s just a real luxury to have [interpreters] for everybody. Before, I just had to do it with sign language. Sometimes it was just signs and…NONONONO. STOP!!!”

Rita also noted that having the interpreters could be a set-back due to the tests being in English. To prepare the class for the written exam, Rita uses English terms and pairs them with the hand signals that the driving school uses for foreign exchange students.

After finishing the first course, Rita is confident that the participants will pass the driving test. “Twenty-three other people did it, and I’m sure there’s more than the ones I taught.”

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