Basima was nervous before she first got behind the wheel. The busy roads of Sydney were intimidating, as were the road rules.
Despite her insecurities, Basima has been determined to learn how to drive. Relying on public transport and her family to get around has not been conducive to the independent lifestyle she desires.
Basima is from Iraq and didn’t learn how to drive in her home country. She relied mostly on her husband, before he died in 2008. She said that, in Iraq, it was simply too dangerous for women to drive.
“There was a lot of accidents and there was no law, no insurance.”
Basima’s journey to Australia dwarfs the challenge of learning to drive. She is from Mosul, Iraq, and fled in 2014 with her family because of ISIS.
“As a Christian, they told us you have to leave, you have to leave your houses. We left everything behind us,” she said.
“We escaped, otherwise we would be killed. We lost everything.”
She left with her children for Jordan, where they spent two years without work rights, before coming to Australia as refugees.
In her 50s, Basima was grateful to be in a safe country, but faced many challenges, including learning "Australian" English.
“It is difficult to start again. And at my age that was very difficult.”
Kasun volunteers his time on the weekend to teach people how to drive. Source: SBS Dateline
Basima took it in her stride. She signed up to several courses, including one in computers and administration.
“I had never used a computer before,” she said.
After gaining work experience volunteering in the community, Basima secured employment. Now, the next step towards an independent life in a new country: a driver's licence.
Basima was connected with Gymea Community Aid and Information Service’s Driver Licensing Access Program (DLAP).
The program is helping people across Sydney who face social and financial barriers to getting their license. Most of their clients are refugees and migrants, and many of them are women.
The program is run by Safwan Aldod, who explained that the key barriers to refugees getting their licence are the language, the expense, and confidence.
Safwan has lived experience in the matter. He is also a refugee from Iraq who had difficulties getting his licence in Australia.
Safwan drove in Iraq but explains that the road rules are almost non-existent. He had to retrain himself to drive in Australia.
“In our country, there are no laws. You can even [go on the] wrong side and nobody cares,” he said.
“[When I was first driving in Australia] I felt excited, felt anxious. Every time you think you don’t want to break the laws because we are in a new country.
“Some [refugees] have an idea that if they break the law they will be returned to their country. So driving under this stress is not easy.”
Approximately 280 people have achieved a P1 licence through the program - with some 60 per cent being women.
“Many refugees are from [the] Middle East where women don't think that they need to get their driver's licence. They never think in their life that they will need a driver licence.”
“But when they come to the country, they find that they have to get their driver's licence to manage their life.”
The program began in 2017 as DriveTime, which commenced in partnership with NRMA. It has expanded into a number of areas across Sydney and NSW with the support of Transport NSW and, under the title of DLAP.
Safwan was thrilled when he became a coordinator in 2018, after getting work experience by volunteering.
“I love helping people because I have had the same experience with difficulty getting my driver licence,” he said.
“So whenever someone gets their driver's licence, I feel it's myself who got the driver licence.”
Coordinating this program is a big job. Cars are stationed at different venues around Sydney. For example, Cabra-Vale Diggers Club holds two cars and administers the keys to volunteer mentors and their students. The venue gives this space and the service for free.
Driving mentors volunteer their time to help students get their learner hours up. Kasun Perera began volunteering as part of a study requirement for a course in community development. He now continues to volunteer, dedicating about six hours of his weekends to helping people learn how to drive.
“The biggest barrier is often English,” he explained.
Safwan has dedicated his career to helping Australia's new migrants learn how to drive. Source: SBS Dateline
Mentors like Kasun also play a key role in helping drivers with their confidence on the road.
“I like to see people achieving their goals.”
There is high demand for learner driving programs for people from migrant backgrounds. Safwan said that the program is expanding across Sydney to include areas such as Parramatta, where the waitlist is already at 200 people.
Basima said she is now confident on the road and driving is not as difficult as she had first thought. She has her driver licence test booked and believes, after a few more lessons, she will be ready.
“Don't hesitate to take your driver's driving licence. You can get it. It will change your life.”