In the driver’s seat: Open Road supports refugee learner drivers

Arriving in a new country as a refugee comes with a number of daunting challenges, but one organisation is doing its best to break down barriers when it comes to one particular skill - driving. The Open Road Programme is run across the country and helps former refugees gain their driver licences.

The building now called the Settlement Centre Waikato once included the VTNZ driver testing programme among its tenants.

Every day, a flow of people on their way to be tested passed by the offices of the Hamilton Multicultural Services (HMS) Trust. Among them were many migrants and refugees.

“Chatting to them, we realised how many times they were failing. We saw the issues they were facing,” says Patricia Novoa, in her soft Mexican-Spanish accent.

“We knew some of them were having to drive illegally because they could not access the support they needed. So we shared our concerns with Hamilton City Council, and we ran a pilot driving course. We realized then how big the need was.”

Passport 2 Drive Lead & Hamilton Open Road Coordinator Patricia Novoa. Image: Supplied

After a series of community-led workshops, HMS launched Passport 2 Drive, New Zealand’s first community driving school.

“Our community chose the name and decided on the service delivery model,” says Tania Pointon, Transport Programmes Manager for HMS Trust.

In June 2015 MBIE funded HMS Trust to pilot a driver training programme supporting former refugees with practical driver education to pass the test for a restricted licence.

The success of the programme led to MBIE supporting the Trust to head the extension of the programme to Palmerston North, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill.

HMS Trust now holds the national contract for leading what is called the Open Road Programme.

More centres are likely to join the programme as refugees are resettled in new locations, such as Timaru and Ashburton.

New Zealand is a car-centric nation. Our cities, the products of the ‘60s and ‘70s, are built out rather than up.

Whether shopping, going to the dentist, getting to work, dropping the kids off at school, or connecting to the community, we usually go by car.

Surveys show that of the time we spend in travel, 79 percent is spent in private cars or vans. Public transport accounts for only 4.1 percent.

Then there is work: 83 percent of job descriptions require applicants to have a New Zealand driver licence.

For many refugees and migrants, being able to drive is second only to English as an essential life skill.

The mentors beside the wheel

Blair McDonnell holds up his mobile phone. On the screen, a young woman beams from atop the dam wall at Lake Karapiro dam, 30 kilometres outside Hamilton.

Mentor Blair McDonnell

“She was so proud of herself; she drove there herself. We came back over the dam, through the village, into Cambridge and back home. All up, that was about two-and-a-half hours.”

“Seeing that,” he says, raising the phone, “that’s why you do it.”

Blair is one of Open Road’s community mentors and the woman in the photo is one of his students.

Mentors for Open Road must have held a full and clean driver licence for more than two years, driving regularly, and commit to two one-hour sessions of mentoring each week for the 12 to 20 weeks a learner might require.

In return, the mentors are given professional instruction and the full support of the Open Road coordinator.

The mentoring is delivered using Open Road’s small fleet of cars. The cars are dual control, making the mentoring experience much less stressful.

“With the cars we have here, it’s safe,” says mentor Francis L’Hermitte. He wouldn’t have signed up without the dual control cars, the risks would be too great.

“That’s why I would never mentor the children of my friends.”

Francis has mentored more than 20 students during the four years he has been a mentor.

He is not unusual. Many mentors give years of service, with only the occasional break, says Patricia.

“They say, ‘I am off on holiday for a month. Can you organise a student for when I come back?’”

Blair was prompted to volunteer for Open Road by the events of March 2019. “I wanted to show New Zealand is not the Christchurch shootings,” he says.

He and his wife, who is Filipina, already had a long tradition of reaching out to newcomers to New Zealand.

Before he retired, Blair worked for Waikato University, and the couple were homestay hosts for many international students.

“We hosted Americans, Taiwanese, Indians, Bangladeshis, Cambodians, Chinese, Samoans – a huge diversity of cultures,” he says.

Mentor Francis L’Hermitte, shown, at left, with one of his two current students. Image: Supplied

His first Open Road student was from the Middle East. With her children, she had spent years in refugee camps.

“I learned a lot of things about teaching people to drive from that,” he says.

“She was ready for her licence; she failed five times.”

The problem, he says, was culturally-related.

“In some countries, men are very much in control. It took some time for her to adjust to men not being a threat."

Experiences like this are not uncommon, says Patricia. The difference between teaching migrants and refugees is that the refugees have often experienced significant hardship.

Alongside traumatic life events, they may have limited formal schooling and problems with literacy and language.

“Every student is different, they all have different backgrounds,” says Francis. “You have to find the solution that works for them.”

Age is often a factor – older people may find learning to drive more daunting – as is the student’s ability to focus on what he is saying.

He is constantly trying to improve. “I’m interested in passing on knowledge. If they pass, I know I am doing the right thing. When they fail, I say, ‘Uh uhh, what can I do better?’”

For students who have difficulties understanding him, he diagrams things out on a small whiteboard or uses toy cars to model traffic problems.

Exam nerves are more of a problem, he says. “Perhaps we should be teaching meditation.”

Students beginning the course, are often shy and lacking in confidence, says Patricia.

“For them, it’s the beginning of a journey of empowerment. Maybe they have never worked so hard for something in their lives. They learn to be committed and disciplined, to try their best. They say, ‘Gosh, I did this.’”

For Blair, this is what he loves most.

“Not every student will bloom. But when they do, it’s extremely rewarding.”

And he knows it’s worthwhile.

“I have been invited into people’s houses, made coffee, treated in a manner way beyond my station. It’s a really good feeling to know you are helping them and their families”

Open Road locations have been cropping up across the country. Image: Supplied


Gerard Martin, who manages Immigration New Zealand’s relationship with the national Open Road programme, shares Blair’s sentiments.

“If you have been driving since you were a teenager, it’s easy to take driving for granted. But for a former refugee who has never held a driver licence in their home country, let alone in New Zealand, having a licence is a major step in their settlement journey.

“It gives them independence. It opens up employment. And it lets them experience New Zealand just as other Kiwis do. As a programme, it has proved it's worth many times over.”

It is now six years since Open Road launched in Hamilton, and the programme’s first graduates, now well-embedded in New Zealand, are beginning to return to the programme as mentors themselves.

“Which is wonderful for us and for them,” says Patricia.

“They bring their knowledge of language and culture with them, and we don’t have the same need to be actively recruiting. It’s more organic. We are building our programme from the inside out. The community is engaged and wants to give back”

Plus, she says, the experience of mentoring is in itself a good learning experience.

“In many countries, volunteering is much more uncommon than it is here – and it’s a good thing to have on the CV.”

The word is out in the community, she says. “People will do a shoulder tap: ‘Hey mate, you have a full licence, why don’t you have a go? You have the opportunity to make a huge difference!”

This piece was first published in the Immigration New Zealand newsletter Settlement ACTIONZ and is republished here with permission.

To find out more about the Open Road programme, check out their website here.

- Asia Media Centre