Not driving in Auckland feels like house arrest for former refugee women
Neama Abubaker Adam was in her forties before she even considered getting behind the wheel of a car.
In Saudi Arabia, her home for almost three decades and where women can be flogged for driving, it would have been reckless at best.
In New Zealand the situation is reversed. For former refugees like Adam, being unable to drive can seem similar to being under house arrest.
Organisations helping resettle refugees have observed that women who can't drive were more likely to struggle here; they tended to lack independence, become isolated, and could go years barely leaving their home.
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While not a refugee herself, Asya Abeid, co-ordinator for the Auckland Resettled Communities Coalition (ARRC), knew the cycle first hand. She spent her first few months in New Zealand inside, overwhelmed by the linguistic and logistical hurdles of stepping out her front door. Abeid, 33, moved here from Tanzania in 2013 to be with her husband, already a New Zealand citizen.
"I was afraid, and as time went on I felt there was something I was losing, that I was missing out," she said. Abeid worried she wouldn't be able to take her baby to a doctor if there was an emergency; that her husband missed work to drive her to appointments; that she wouldn't be able to get a job herself without a driver's licence.
"I realised that if I wanted to move on in this country, I must learn to drive" — something that had never seemed necessary in Tanzania — she said. Abeid's husband taught her and she said it transformed her life.
Keen to give other women the same sense of empowerment, Abeid now helps run a mentoring programme giving free driving lessons to former refugees across Auckland. It's an ARCC and Red Cross joint venture, funded by the government, where professional driving instructors train volunteers how to teach driving skills. The volunteers then get students ready to sit their restricted licence.
The programme is already running successfully in Hamilton, Nelson, Palmerston North, and Wellington: 62 former refugees obtained their restricted drivers licences in the first half of 2017.
ARCC and the Red Cross are calling on volunteers — with full licences and two to three hours to spare each week — to be part of the Auckland version.
"Our students are ready, but we urgently need more volunteers to help teach," Abeid said. "When you as a Kiwi think about learning to drive, family is usually involved ... refugees don't have that support."
Other things they tend not to have include a spare $70 per hour-long private lesson, enough confidence in English to brave public transport, or — like Adam — a background where female drivers were the norm.
Adam was one of the first to sign up to the programme.
"I'm very excited," she said, grinning at the thought of finally driving the blue hatchback she bought back in 2014. Like many refugees, she got her learner's licence while at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre but never had an opportunity to practice.
Adam, a widow, lives in West Auckland with her three daughters. She arrived in 2013, speaking Arabic and Italian but not English. She currently studies English at AUT.
Born in Eritrea, a small African nation on the Red Sea coast, Adam lived in Saudi Arabia with her Eritrean husband for 27 years before arriving in Auckland. She was forced to leave the only country her daughters knew when her husband died. Saudi law very rarely grants citizenship to foreigners, even if they were born there, and Adam's residency status depended on her husband's job.
The family could either move to Eritrea, the land of their passports where wars simmered and people vanished, or register as refugees with the UNHCR. They did the former and eventually got accepted by New Zealand.
Adam's first impressions of her new country were positive: "When I landed at the airport, al humdulilah, I saw people smiling and I thought, 'this is good'", she said. But she soon became frustrated by immobility — declining invitations and missing appointments that could smooth her transition into New Zealand life.
She saw a driving licence as her ticket to freedom. When she heard about the driving mentor-ship programme, she said she wanted to start "immediately, with my daughters".
"We came here from a country where women really did not do anything — and it is time to change our lives," she said.