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Drivers Ed Helps Women Refugees Navigate Road To Self-Sufficiency

Abir Aldabbagh turns to look out her back window as she reverses her car duri...

Photo by Tarryn Mento

Above: Abir Aldabbagh turns to look out her back window as she reverses her car during an lesson, Oct. 3, 2018.

Weekdays are a struggle for Abir Aldabbagh and her family. With four children attending different schools that don't offer buses, Aldabbagh’s husband — the family's only licensed driver — juggles shuttling the kids to class with his job as a rideshare driver. The process is even more challenging because the school days end at different times.

The upside is that this makes Aldabbagh an ideal candidate for a new program that provides driving instruction to female refugees. The Women at the Wheel initiative from Syrian Community Network San Diego covers training to help them earn their license for the first time and therefore a little independence.

"I want to learn ... to take my children to school and pick up because my husband works same time when (they) finish school," the native Arabic-speaker said in English.

The new program that has nearly three dozen women on a waiting list is a silver lining amid record-low refugee arrivals that forced many relief agencies to shift focus, shutter or shrink. Syrian Community Network San Diego first popped up in 2016 to help house a surge of refugees resettling primarily in El Cajon and City Heights, but that need decreased as the president slashed the ceiling on arrivals.

Photo caption: Syrian refugee Abir Aldabbagh's four children pose together in front of rose ...

Photo credit: Syrian Community Network San Diego

Syrian refugee Abir Aldabbagh's four children pose together in front of rose bushes in this undated photo.

Communications Manager Lida Dianti said the group interviewed the community to determine its next steps and found top concerns included financial difficulties, learning English and feelings of isolationism.

"If transportation and for example child care — those two barriers are in front of you, it’s just more difficult to get to where you want to be, to improve your English, to find a job, to volunteer at your kids’ school and engage with your community," Dianti said.

She said even though many families use public transportation, a driver’s license could grant refugees, especially women who have never been behind the wheel, more freedom to address these challenges.

"These families have been here for a year to two years, it’s time to help them in a different way that’s more about getting them — empowering them to be more self-sufficient and independent," she said.

The organization crowdsourced $20,000 to cover driving instruction for 40 Syrian refugees, including Aldabbagh's daughter Raghad, and launched a class in Swahili for Congolese refugees, but it's still fundraising for 32 other women on a waiting list.

The only student to take her test so far has passed.

Aldabbagh said she has to work on parking and reversing before she’ll be ready for her driver’s exam later this month, but Raghad, a San Diego City College student, said her mom is improving.

"It was scary at the beginning, but now she knows how to drive," she said with a soft laugh as her mother giggled.

Still, Aldabbagh thinks Raghad is the better driver, while her husband worries Raghad is too heavy on the gas pedal.

However, a license is just the first hurdle. Aldabbagh’s husband uses the family’s only car to earn a living. The family is on the Syrian Community Network’s waiting list to receive a donated vehicle.

Mathew Bowler ,

Weekdays are a struggle for Abir Aldabbagh and her family. With four children attending different schools, Aldabbagh’s husband — the family's only licensed driver — juggles shuttling the kids to class with his job as a rideshare driver.

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