“It was winter when we came to Nashville, and due to the cold and traveling, my two year old son became sick,” recounted Hla Tin, a refugee from Burma. Because Hla Tin and his wife did not have a driver’s license or car, they were completely dependent on friends for rides to the store, hospital, or anywhere else they needed to go. Their friends, however, worked long hours and were often unable to help them.
This left Hla Tin and his wife with few options: to wait upon their friends’ limited availability or to walk 30 minutes to the nearest store. A thirty minute walk may not seem that daunting for a grown man, but due to a past motor bike injury, Hla Tin cannot stand for long periods of time and walking any distance causes him great pain. Because of his injury, he has been unable to secure a job and his wife has to work to support their family.
Tin knew that being able to drive would afford him many more opportunities for work and allow him to take better care of his family. But for a refugee, the process of acquiring a driver's license is an incredibly complex undertaking. Though Hla Tin was able to drive a motorbike in Burma, Burma’s driving regulations were much less extensive than the United States and loosely enforced.
Hla Tin began studying every day for his driver’s test. His main difficulty, however, was not the material itself, but the fact that all of the driver’s education materials and even the classes offered are in English. Having a very limited knowledge of English, Hla Tin struggled to make sense of the material. He failed his first attempt at the written test; even when he recognized certain English words, he misunderstood the questions.
Unfortunately, Tin’s situation is not an isolated instance. Each year, about 1,300 refugees are resettled in and around Nashville. Though some programs exist to aid in their adjustment, there is currently no program to help refugees become licensed drivers. Rebekah Davis, a student at the Institute for G.O.D. International, first became aware of this problem after meeting a Bhutanese family. Their one request of her was that she help them to obtain their licenses. After giving them rides to the DMV and securing driver’s education materials, she began to research what resources were available for refugees. She found none. She discovered the many difficulties that exist for refugees to learn how to drive. Even if they are able to pass a driver’s test, many refugees avoid driving because they still do not feel comfortable with their knowledge of the rules of the road.
After learning of Hla Tin’s situation last spring, Davis began tutoring him on a weekly basis. She began this endeavor without a translator, and initially relied on pictures, videos, and visual aides in order to communicate lessons on driving in Nashville. Eventually, she found a Burmese translator and was then able to teach him in his own language. The translator, Jha Ring, was so grateful and impressed by the work that Davis was doing that she introduced Davis to eight of her friends who were in need of the same education. Of those eight, five of them have taken their driver's test thus far. All five passed!
Hla Tin also passed the driver’s exam and earned his license. He and his wife beamed with pride as he showed us his driver’s license and listed off all of the places that he has been able to drive his family. When his friends asked how he was able to get a driver’s license so quickly, he simply replied, “I have a teacher.” The same friends on whom he used to depend for rides now come to him with their questions about driving and he is able to teach them what he has learned.
Initially for Davis, this issue seemed so overwhelming that she wasn’t sure how or if she could help. After having completed this initial class, however, she says, “All it takes a willing heart. Just a few hours a week can change a person’s entire life. There’s just not enough people who are aware and working with this demographic of people.” Her hope is that other churches and individuals would be made aware of this issue and be compelled to help meet this great need.
Many immigrants and refugees refer to America as “the golden prison.” It is full of opportunities, yet those opportunities remain just out of reach for those who come here to seek them. Leviticus 19:34 says, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” Failing to love the foreigners in our land is failing to remember that we were once foreigners, whether in our history of faith as slaves in Egypt, or even our history as Americans in a land not our own. Hospitality (and love) to the foreigner is an irrevocable expectation on all individuals and communities seeking holiness.
It doesn't take much to change the lives of immigrants and refugees in one's locality--for Davis, it only took a few hours a week and a willing heart. Refugees come to the US in hopes of a better life. They are ready to work, and eager to learn the language. But they do need help. Where government programs fall short, you and I can help. We can find ways to help them exit the "golden prison," and instead enter into a good life if we offer hospitable care for them through simple and practical integration assistance.