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Sioux City agencies are making driver's licenses more accessible for Afghan refugees

A woman sits at the desk at the office of Lutheran Services of Iowa.
Kendall Crawford
File / IPR
Lutheran Services of Iowa is one of two organizations in Sioux City helping Afghan refugees to pass their driver's test.

Resettlement organizations in western Iowa are helping Afghan refugees reach an important milestone: passing their driver’s license exams.

The agencies are collaborating with the Iowa Department of Transportation to ensure written driver's license tests are available in languages commonly spoken in Afghanistan. The Sioux City branch of Lutheran Services of Iowa and the Mary J. Treglia Community House have launched driving courses in Pashto and Dari to make the test more accessible to Iowa’s latest arrivals.

Refugee coordinator at the Mary J. Treglia Community House, Mercedes Dimas, said it’s a vital need for many of the Afghan arrivals – who are currently relying on friends, navigating a limited public transport system or walking to get around the area.

“Everyone who's coming in to take this course and is learning these things, they're going to walk out 10 times more empowered than when they came in,” Dimas said.

Mercedes Dimas sits in her office at the Mary J. Treglia Community House in Sioux City, Iowa. She's resettled 20 Afghan refugees in the area since November.
Kendall Crawford
File / IPR
Mercedes Dimas said the courses are vital for new Afghan arrivals wanting to drive.

Iowans can currently take the exam on a computer in 21 different languages, but that doesn’t include Pashto or Dari. The Afghan languages are only available orally through the department’s language line service. But, Ankeny driver and identification service center supervisor, Charles Cunningham, said they can’t always guarantee a translator will be available.

That’s why the Iowa DOT is working to expand on-site language options. He predicts that both Afghan languages will be added to the digital database by the fall.

“It really means a lot to my team,” he said. “To really get yourself established here, you need an ID or license.”

In the meantime, the department will continue to partner with agencies like LSI to increase access for the influx of Afghan refugees that have been arriving in the state since November. Sioux City’s LSI office has been offering twice monthly opportunities for the test to be translated and read aloud in Pashto since May.

LSI refugee coordinator Katie Hagen said many Afghan refugees have been waiting for an opportunity to drive. She said it is an imperative step in helping them become more immersed in their community.

“This allows them not only to go to the grocery store or get to work but it also allows them socialization,” she said. “So now they can not only socialize with the guys that are living around their area, but all over town.”

“Everyone who's coming in to take this course and is learning these things, they're going to walk out 10 times more empowered than when they came in,”
Mercedes Dimas, refugee coordinator at Mary J. Treglia Community House

Many of the arrivals from Afghanistan have driven before, and just needed to overcome the test’s language barrier to get back on the road, she said.

Ahmedullah Kohbandi, who arrived in Sioux City two months ago after fleeing Afghanistan, passed his written exam at LSI’s course offering on Thursday. Speaking through a translator, Kohbandi said he’s looking forward to driving to places other than work or home, once he passes the road test.

“If I want to go visit my relatives or go to the park with friends or buy groceries, I’ll need a car for that,” he said. “I'm very excited to drive here.”

But, the programs go beyond translation. A portion of the classes at both organizations is devoted to helping Afghans prepare for tests by teaching them the rules of the road. Dimas said it’s important they understand the concepts fully, not just memorize the answers.

“We have women here, too, who have never driven but they want to be independent, they want to have that same opportunity,” Dimas said. “So, how do we get them that access without actually sitting here and showing them? That's what we need to do.”

Joe Ciriaco, an intern at Mary J. Treglia, helped to design the course. He said it was important to be as in-depth in the lessons to ensure the refugees are equipped with the same cultural knowledge as someone raised in the U.S. The presentation tackles everything from road sign meanings, to basic car mechanics to how to interact with police and emergency responders.

“Some of the people who are taking these classes maybe don’t have the same education systems that we come from here in America. So, a lot of it is catering towards a specific audience,” Ciriaco said.

Mary J. Treglia Community House in Sioux City, Iowa.
Kendall Crawford
File / IPR
The Mary J. Treglia Community House in Sioux City is teaching Afghans how to drive in Dari, a commonly spoken Afghan language.

The classes at Mary J. Treglia Community House are currently being held in Dari, but Dimas said the organization intends to expand the course into many other languages. She said the Afghan arrivals showed that there was an acute need for culturally considerate driving lessons.

“We need to do it so that anybody can come in and teach this. Anybody can come in in any language and teach a group of people,” she said. “And, then we can keep that system going.”

Translation of Kohbandi's remarks by Ismail Pashton, interpreter with LSI

Kendall was Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA until Jan. 20, 2023.