Multilingual driving schools help immigrants get on the road

Student driver Iqbal Kina, 32, of Madison Heights during her lesson with the Madamma Driving School in Sterling Heights. The driving school serves clients who are refugees or recent immigrants from the Middle East.
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Student driver Iqbal Kina, 32, of Madison Heights during her lesson with the Madamma Driving School in Sterling Heights. The driving school serves clients who are refugees or recent immigrants from the Middle East. (Clarence Tabb, Jr. / The Detroit News)

Sterling Heights— Determined to master parallel parking, Iqbal Kina concentrates as she maneuvers her car between a pair of conesin the parking lot behind Madamma Driving School.

Outside, instructor John Bitti calls out commands in his student’s native Chaldean.

As a new immigrant from Baghdad who is just learning English, Kina, 32, is relieved to be working with an instructor who speaks her language and is excited to get her license.

“Here you can’t live without being able to drive,” the Madison Heights resident said through an interpreter. “You can’t go shopping, you can’t go to school.”

Kina is one of nearly 23,000 Chaldeans who have moved to the state within the last four years, according to U.S. census data. The Chaldean Community Foundation said 13,000 of them sought refugee status in Michigan after fleeing Iraq, which has been torn by sectarian violence since the U.S. invasion a decade ago.

As more of these new immigrants seek driver’s licenses in Metro Detroit, multilingual driving schools have been popping up to meet the community’s needs.

Eric Younan, director of strategic initiatives for the Chaldean Community Foundation, said the number of Chaldean refugees continues to grow.

Once they arrive, after securing housing and getting their children into schools, these refugees seek jobs, Younan said. Often they don’t speak English, which makes it difficult to get a driver’s license and therefore to travel to work, he added.

“Learning how to drive is very important for the acculturation process,” Younan said. “If you’re not from Metro Detroit, it’s a really large expanse of area to travel.”

The foundation works to provide interpreters who help translate the written driver’s test, said Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for the Michigan Secretary of State.

Ban Manna, owner of Southfield-based International Driver Testing, decided to start her business two years ago after she heard from family members and friends how hard it was to find a Chaldean-speaking road testing agency.

Manna experienced it herself when her family came to the United States and her mother was taking her road test.

“I was sitting in the back and translating for her, but by the time I could translate it, she’d miss the turn or the sign,” she said.

Manna speaks English, Chaldean, Arabic and some Italian. Many of her clients are Christian or Muslim women, whose culture would make it difficult to drive alone in a car with a man from outside their family.

“Most of the people I’m road-testing are adults who have been here less than a year,” she said. “Without a car, it’s like you have no life.”

Bitti, Manna’s cousin, said he has been a driving teacher for eight years and opened Madamma Driving School two years ago in the hopes of improving the quality of life for his community members.

“A lot of these people, the first question they get when they go to find a job is, do you have a driver’s license, which is the same as saying, do you have a car,” said Bitti. “I want to put everybody on equal ground. I can teach them in Arabic and Chaldean just as I could teach in English.”

Bitti said he teaches students the signs and road rules in English as well, to make sure they get used to it.

Driver’s training is only one part of the equation, Bitti said. Not everyone coming to the school can afford the lessons, which can range between $30 to $60 per session and the road test, which costs around $50.

The Chaldean Community Foundation is working to alleviate some of the expense for refugees.

The foundation, started in 2006 as the nonprofit wing of the Chaldean Chamber of Commerce, provides services such as mental health care, English classes and job training and placement. But foundation members soon noticed another gap they needed to fill.

“People were able to learn English and get jobs, but they couldn’t get to work because they didn’t have cars,” said Younan.

Last year, the foundation launched the Chaldean Loan Fund to help recent immigrants buy cars.

The loans have a $5,000 cap, enough to get a first car and jump-start a new life, Younan said.

Wasan Wartan said she moved to the United States four years ago after escaping religious persecution stemming from the Iraqi civil war. She came alone, knowing almost no English and with no family members and few friends living here.

The Southfield resident became the first of 11 people to get a car loan through the program last November.

Now 34, Wartan, is drives her 2003 Buick Rendezvous to her job as a sales associate at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store in Utica, where her co-workers know her as “Christina,” the American name she has adopted.

“I’m more independent than I was without a car. Before, I had to call a friend or pay a neighbor to drive me,” she said. “Now with my car I’m feeling more energy and I can go to work, go shopping or do anything.”
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