Australia's driving school for refugees

When Lucia Marry Marry failed her first driving test in Australia the 37-year-old Myanmar refugee was not too disappointed - to her, it is enough she can take the exam.

Nor is she worried about the dangers of driving on busy city roads, a sight unseen in her homeland, formerly known as Burma, where walking was generally the only form of transport for the mother-of-three.

"No. I'm not scared. I'm happy because I like driving," she says from behind the wheel, as she takes one of her regular driving sessions with her mentor Carole Carter in the southern city of Wollongong.

But Marry, who came to Australia as a humanitarian refugee two years ago, says her children - aged seven, 11 and 12 - would like her to drive. 

The driving scheme in Wollongong near Sydney helps refugees integrate into the community. 
Credit: SCARF

"Like today, rainy. Sometimes, no umbrella. My children tell me 'Ma, I like the car'," she said.

Marry is one of a group of people benefiting from a scheme run by volunteers that helps refugees integrate into the community by, among other things, helping them get their driving licence.

For newly-arrived refugees, the inability to navigate Australia's vast road network means it is harder to find work, and the urban sprawl makes it more difficult to complete simple tasks such as shopping or travelling to school.

Australia accepted close to 14,000 refugees over the last year, with the highest numbers coming from Iraq, Myanmar, and Afghanistan.

But because many refugee families settle in outer metropolitan or regional areas where housing is affordable but public transport limited, they face considerable difficulties with transport, the Refugee Council has said.

Ted Booth, who heads the Wollongong driving programme, said holding a driver's licence gave refugees a better chance at work opportunities and easier access to health care, schools, friends and community events.

"It's what we expect as Australians, to have that mobility," he said.

Since the programme began in 2009 about 40 people, many of them from Myanmar but also from African countries, have been helped to get their licence.

"The Burmese haven't driven before, the Africans are varied - some have had driving experiences," explains Booth but says what both groups have in common is difficulty in understanding English and street signs.

The worst experiences, he says, have been when the learner has misunderstood that they must have some 20 hours of driving lessons from professional drivers before they come to a volunteer, and turn up with none.
But he says there have never been any serious problems.

"There's been some sweaty brows from near misses," he admits, adding that the notoriously steep roads leading into Wollongong, an east coast city of about 200,000 people south of Sydney, are a good training ground.

Carter, who usually finds 30 minutes a couple of times a week to take a car for a spin with Marry and who has also helped refugees from Congo and Burundi, says the biggest problem is the language barrier.

The best thing, she says, is meeting people such as Marry, who spent 15 years in a refugee camp on the border with Thailand before she arrived in Australia.

The volunteers' attitudes contrast sharply with those that prevail among the broader Australian public, where boatpeople are often viewed with hostility despite arriving in low numbers by global standards.

"Just beautiful people, and the trials and the troubles they've been through to get here. She's just happy to have the opportunity to drive, you know, they have such a positive outlook on life," Carter said.

Fellow Myanmar refugee Nye Reh, who had never driven when he arrived in Australia on a humanitarian visa after spending two decades in a refugee camp, is the perfect example.

"When I came here, I saw a lot of driving on a very busy road. I told myself... if I drive maybe I have an accident," the 35-year-old said.

"(But) little by little I've got the confidence to drive."

The father of two young daughters no longer has to spend hours commuting to his college studies by public transport and can easily drive his family to doctors appointments or to do the shopping.

"I enjoy (driving)," says Reh as he expertly guides his car along the Wollongong coastline.

"I never thought in my life I would have a car, I would drive a car, because I was living in a refugee camp a long time.

"Right now I can drive, I can own my car because I am here. So I am very lucky." - Relaxnews

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