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For New Americans, getting a driver’s license is a big step

  • Nawras Altaher (left) and Bella Iyakaremye talk about their experiences at the New American Driving School on Aug. 14. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Bella Iyakaremye smiles after driving around the Second Start parking lot in the New American Driving School car on Aug. 14. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Bella Iyakaremye drives around the parking lot of Second Start in East Concord on Tuesday, August 14, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Driving instructor Morgan Mbuyi checks in with Bella Iyakaremye before she takes a spin during a recent class. Mbuyi, a new American from Congo, says the state’s new arrivals have few public transportation options.

Monitor staff
Published: 8/24/2019 4:03:43 PM

Twenty-eight-year-old Geetha Menni has made Concord her home since she moved from India to New Hampshire nine months ago. She found a comfortable place to live with her husband and secured a job at Lincoln Financial.

Menni said she has big dreams of pursuing a master’s degree in the United States – but she says there is still one big obstacle standing in her way of achieving that goal.

“I am depending on my husband for everything, for rides to my job. I can’t even get to the supermarket without help,” she said, sitting at a desk in front of a whiteboard in an air-conditioned classroom on Knight Street in Concord, where her driving school class was about to start. Her hands were folded over a New Hampshire driver’s manual.

“It’s very much important for me to learn driving, otherwise, I could not survive, have a life here,” she said.

The New American Driving School, at Second Start headquarters in Concord, has been operating for about a year to help new arrivals transition to living and getting around in the U.S. Concord has taken in more refugees per capita than any other New Hampshire city, according to state records.

Morgan Mbuyi, a New American from Congo who has been working as an instructor for the class, said lack of mobility has been a major problem for immigrants in the state.

“New Hampshire does not have good transportation. A lot of people can’t get jobs because when they go to apply for a job, a license is one of the requirements,” Mbuyi said. “Sometimes, people will apply for a job and they’ll get hired, but when they have to work different shifts, they are relying on someone else for transportation and it’s hard for them. They end up losing it.”

Mbuyi said the driving school, which is licensed by the state, has been a great success so far.

Out of the 22 New Americans who have taken the course, half have gotten their licenses already. More are getting ready to take the test in the coming months, said Second Start Executive Director Jim Snodgrass.

“We’re seeing that there’s a real need here, and people are very appreciative,” he said. “Not only are people getting to be more mobile and independent, but they are gaining confidence too. They feel a sense of accomplishment and belonging.”

Getting around

Bella Iyakaremye, originally from Rwanda, moved to New Hampshire from a refugee camp in Zambia three years ago. She said she had never driven before she signed up for Second Start’s New American driving school.

“I was nervous to start,” she remembered. “I was very, very scared thinking about driving alone in a new country.”

Iyakaremye had experienced first hand how difficult it is to live in Concord without a license. She said she got a job at one point, but was only able to make it a month without reliable transportation.

It was hard to manage a changing work schedule when she could barely get rides to doctor’s appointments, to the grocery store and to church, Iyakaremye said.

“You are stressing a lot because you have to ask and you have to not make your plans as you want. You have to depend on someone,” she said. “Sometimes, you wait for a ride and you don’t come to the last minute.”

She said she chose to enlist in the class because of the affordability and for the community. Second Start is able to offer its New American driving school for $400 for eight weeks of classes, four days a week and 10 or more hours of driving instruction, thanks to support from the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Merrimack Savings Bank and Santander Bank. Most driving courses are $600 to $900, Snodgrass said.

Iyakaremye said she found a lot of common ground with her classmates, even though their home countries and native languages differed.

“When you see another student learning and speaking, you want to speak and you have a desire to speak,” she said. “You are inspired by our classmates and our teacher.”

Iyakaremye said she got her driver’s license a few months ago – she passed both the written and driving sections on the first try.

Iyakaremye confidently showed off her driving skills in the Second Start parking lot last week, looking behind her as she pulled out of a spot and drove a loop around the pavement.

“Now, I am independent,” she said. “I go out for shopping – at Walmart, Market Basket, to the hospital, to church. I don’t have to ask for rides every time.”

Growing confidence

Nawras Altaher was overwhelmed when she first received her New Hampshire driver’s manual on the first day of class. She said she didn’t understand most of the words in there.

Altaher, who enjoys studying, spent many nights translating words like yield, blind spots and parallel parking one by one.

She said she was motivated to get her license for her son, who started preschool this year.

“All the teachers here advised me, don’t worry, we will teach you and you will understand,” she said. “They were very encouraging.”

Altaher said the most rewarding part of the process was when she went to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Concord in December to take her driving test. She passed easily.

The piece she was most proud of was taking the test without an interpreter. She studied the handbook and memorized the answers to 100 possible questions that could be asked.

“All of my Iraqi friends I know, they took their driving license test by interpreter, especially the 40-question test. But me, I took it for myself. I was so happy, told my husband, look, I took it by my own hand, nobody helped me. I challenged myself and I did it.’ ”

Menni said she has completed four hours of driving on the road so far. She will be completing the course in a few weeks.

“I don’t know how to express it, but it’s a nice feeling when you are on the road,” she said. “I’m still learning, but it’s really nice.”

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