Open Road transforming lives for refugees

From Here Now, 8:00 am on 19 February 2018

The Open Road Driver Training Programme for people from refugee backgrounds is helping change lives across New Zealand. People who gain their driver licence benefit, and that can help others in the new migrant community too.

Take Allen Muyengwa. If he can pass his restricted driver licence test, his boss has promised him full employment. A former refugee from Zimbabwe, Allen works part-time in the mental health sector and some of his clients suffer from social isolation. Having the ability to drive will transform not only Allen’s life but those of his clients.

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Allen Muyengwa’s journey

Allen Muyengwa is from the Zezuru tribe in Zimbabwe. His family became refugees during the four decades of President Mugabe’s rule, which was plagued by human rights abuses.

He came to New Zealand in 2006 as an international student to study for a degree in psychology at Victoria University of Welington. He was forced to seek asylum when Mugabe’s government began persecuting his family.

He stayed on in Wellington but his mother fled to the UK and his two brothers are still living in their homeland, although he is hoping for family reunification one day soon.

Muyengwa’s work in the mental health sector involves assisting people from former refugee backgrounds similar to his own, but it is one kilometre at a time for this young psychology graduate.

“Part of my job involves working with clients who have gone through a mental health illness. Some of them lack self-confidence to go back into society.”

“I help them transition back into society. I help them transform their lives.”

ChangeMakers Refugee Forum represents more than 15 refugee communities across Wellington region.

In 2011, they set up the Turning the Curve Programme to enable women from refugee backgrounds to gain their driver licences.  It was informed by a steering group of women from the refugee communities in Porirua, the Hutt and Wellington.

For these women, gaining a driver licence was synonymous with adapting to life in New Zealand and, ultimately, successful refugee resettlement.

The Open Road Driver Training Programme was set up just over a year ago. Interim general manager Rochelle Stewart-Allen says the Open Road programme is the first to provide driving lessons for men from refugee backgrounds.

“Having a licence is not something that you can take for granted,” she says. “It opens up so many opportunities for you.”

Speaking at a recent celebration to mark the first year of the programme, Allen Muyengwa is openly grateful to his driving mentor, volunteer Ross Wood. The two have become firm friends over the five months that it has taken for Allen to be ready to sit his restricted driver licence test.

The test is scheduled for the following morning, so Allen is a little apprehensive but also excited.

“It’s going to enable me to do my job, which is very, very important, and it’s a job I love.”

Saw Pone’s journey

On a quiet back road in Titahi Bay, in Wellington, Saw Pone is calmly taking instructions. It’s only his second driving lesson but he’s displaying confidence behind the wheel of the car. His driving mentor, Nicky Comerford, is a mother of two and a former primary school teacher.

Saw is a former refugee from the Karin state of Myanmar, who spent the last 14 years in Malaysia. Saw, his wife Nilar and their two-year-old daughter Nyein Aye San arrived in New Zealand just 22 weeks ago.

He says that life as United Nations-registered refugees in Malaysia was tough for his family, and they survived on Saw’s work in restaurants and kitchens.

Saw dreams of running his own restaurant one day, but he will need a driver’s licence first. “We need to drive a car. We need to learn the road code. This is very important for our people.”

Mentor Nicky agrees. “The importance of him driving is the ability to really participate fully in life here in New Zealand. I think he’s pretty awesome. He’s jumped on this programme and already got his learner [licence].”

Saw Pone after his second lesson with mentor Nicky Comerford

Saw Pone after his second lesson with mentor Nicky Comerford Photo: RNZ Lynda Chanwai-Earle

The Open Road programme takes place over 12-16 weeks, and volunteer mentors provide 2-3 hours of lessons per week in a dual control car which is provided by the scheme. Learners are assessed on a monthly basis, and also receive a number of lessons from a qualified driving instructor.

Kate Twyford,the Open Road Driver Training Coordinator for Wellington, says the programme is very dependent on volunteers and mentors like Nicky and Ross.

Kate says they are always looking for more volunteers, and is appealing to drivers across the country to jump on board.

“It’s a national programme,” she says. “We’re all across the regions looking for people who have two spare hours free a week and who have a full driver’s licence and are confident, patient people.”

Passing with flying colours

It’s the next morning at the Vehicle Testing New Zealand station in Thorndon and Allen is beaming with pride. Standing next to him, and equally proud, is his mentor Ross.

Allen has just passed his restricted driver license, which he says is great news, not just for himself but for the growing community of fellow Zimbabweans in Upper Hutt.

“It’s achievable. I’m going to be a role model for them,” says Allen. “I’m going to encourage them to do something that will enhance their lives in lots of different ways.”

Success! Allen Muyengwa (right) holds his restricted driver licence with Mentor Ross Wood.

Success! Allen Muyengwa (right) holds his restricted driver licence with Mentor Ross Wood. Photo: RNZ