New found freedom of refugee women drivers

From Voices, 7:00 am on 20 January 2020

A driving school in Auckland offering subsidies on lessons for refugees is appealing to the public for help.

Due to growing demand, the Migrant Action Trust manager, Amie Maga, said they need more donations and volunteer staff and driving mentors for The Puketāpapa Community Driving School.

Amie said they need at least $7,000 to buy another dual control practise car plus a driving simulator to help nervous learner drivers.    

“This is very helpful for someone with zero driving experience and going in a driving simulator will give confidence (and) hopefully after some sessions it will help them drive on the real road.”

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Migrant Action Trust manager, Amie Maga

Migrant Action Trust manager, Amie Maga Photo: RNZ /Sara Vui-Talitu

The Puketāpapa Community Driving School has been going for two years already in an Auckland suburb known for its diversity of cultures and communities.

“It’s the Maori name for Mt Roskill," said Amie. "We are one of the more ethnically diverse communities but happy to support all people [from all across the city] and help them try to get a job."

"We help the whole family by getting one driver.”

The project, which is a community-owned social enterprise, offers subsidised lessons to a refugee learner for every fully paid driving lesson.

The school takes into account cultural and religious considerations and a translator can be arranged if needed.

“So, several organisations get together to make it more migrant friendly and more culturally appropriate as many of the women prefer woman mentors and instructors as many of them are Muslim women."

Islam Khalelo, has been in Aotearoa New Zealand for four years now as a former refugee from Syria.

“It’s very good and helpful and I feel lucky because I heard from others before…it is expensive to have to pay in full.”

Islam reckons she has an elephant foot and her husband often tells her to slow down. Unlike driving in Syria, Islam said people in New Zealand follow the road rules.

Susan Matencio (L) and Islam Khalelo (R)

Susan Matencio (L) and Islam Khalelo (R) Photo: RNZ /Sara Vui-Talitu

Islam's driving instructor and mentor is Susan Matencio.

“I started as a volunteer 2017 when we launched this and then after a year, they told me would you like to consider being a driving instructor?

"And they said the skill is there and I have had a lot of good feedback from students and [saying] you have a lot of patience.

"Well then I keep on postponing but after on to two months and they keep pushing me, "C’mon you are going to be a driving instructor, " I finally said okay.”

In 2019, the school helped 71 clients get their license and so far they have helped more than 150 learners, including Amie.

Although Amie immigrated here from the Philippines in 2009, she got her license just over one year ago and knows exactly what it is like to learn how to drive.

Islam in driver seat

Islam in driver seat Photo: RNZ /Sara Vui-Talitu

“Well on my first few lessons I actually hit the mailbox (laughs) and was just so worried for my flatmate's car (a BMW).”

She said her flatmate said not to worry about it but said at the time, she felt terrible.

“That was the worst incident for me 'cos when I enrolled at this community driving school they were really patient and there was a dual control practise car so that really helped.”

Islam getting her certificate of achievement from Puketapapa Local Board Deputy Chair, Julie Fairey.

Islam getting her certificate of achievement from Puketapapa Local Board Deputy Chair, Julie Fairey. Photo: Supplied

But for Amie, the real motivation to learn how to drive was her mother-in-law.

“[She] suffered a stroke and I could not get her to appointments,” she said. "So that was really hard."

“It makes you feel more secure and you are not dependent on anyone else especially in emergencies.”

Amie says it is difficult for refugees to learn how to drive in New Zealand.

“There are the cultural and language barriers,” she said, but people also have had different experiences in their previous countries.

“We have learners from more than 20 ethnic groups around the world and we partner with other Trusts too, like there’s one for Muslim women whose husbands might get sick and so it’s up to them to learn how to drive.”

To her delight, Islam got her restricted license when she sat her test and can now legally drive the car to drop off her two kids to school without relying solely on her husband.

Islam is just one of 20 refugee background learners the school has supported so far but Amie has her sights on helping at least 35 refugees this year.

But to help Amie do that, she has a big public plea to anyone out there who has some spare money to donate or time to be able to volunteer as a driving school mentor or instructor, to get in touch.

Susan takes Islam for her driving lesson before she sits her restricted test.

Susan takes Islam for her driving lesson before she sits her restricted test. Photo: RNZ / Sara Vui-Talitu