With the pressure on, Somali refugee Najah Abdi signed up for her third written driver’s permit test Wednesday afternoon with the help of her translator.
Abdi and Ifrah Ahmed were the first pair to take a knowledge test together as part of a new local program pairing test takers who speak little to no English or Spanish — the only languages offered in the written component of Kansas licensing tests — with a translator who can assist them.
All eyes were on Abdi as she moved from the registration counter at the Garden City Department of Motor Vehicles office to the computer terminal to begin her test with the assistance of Ahmed, who herself is an immigrant from Kenya, where English is spoken as a second language. Ahmed said she identifies as a Somali-Kenyan.
Before the test began, Ahmed said it is her goal to help immigrants and refugees of all varieties, to the extent that she is even learning Spanish just in case another local might need her.
“I try to learn Spanish,” Ahmed said. “It’s not perfect, but it’s progressing. … Basically, for me, it’s I want to help people. I want to help immigrants, I want to help refugees, and if there is a way that I can help, then by all means I want to be a part of it.”
The new program was launched by Kearny County Hospital Administrator Benjamin Anderson, who said the program is slated to include seven languages, including Somali, Arabic, Sudanese, Burmese (Karen dialect), Swahili, Filipino (Tagalog dialect) and Ethiopian before branching out into additional languages.
Anderson said previously that the idea for the program began germinating when “more and more people” began using emergency room services due to their inability to visit a primary care provider during regular hours because of transportation issues, causing a “barrier to health.”
Now, the Kearny County Hospital’s Pioneer Care Advocacy Team is partnering with the Kansas Department of Revenue to get the ball rolling on translation services for those taking their licensing test, and eventually to incorporate additional languages into the written components of the tests themselves.
Kendal Carswell, program coordinator for the Pioneer Advocacy Team, said translators will meet with test takers at the DMV on a walk-in basis. He said there are currently four vetted translators in the program, and more who have volunteered but who await vetting.
According to Carswell, translators sign a contract stipulating that they will only translate the questions before test takers and offer nothing else. He added that the KDR will monitor pass rates among test takers and translators in the program for possible discrepancies and flag rates that are unusually high.
“Certainly, this does nothing other than help strengthen our community, and we’re supporting people that need support and wanting to fit in and want to be community members,” Carswell said. “I’m excited about this, and I think it will impact our region tremendously.”
Breana Berroth, driver’s license manager for the KDR, said the first phase of the program restricted to translation services by volunteers will cost taxpayers nothing. She noted that adding additional languages to the actual statewide tests later on may result in some cost to taxpayers, “but it’s still a very minimal amount.”
Berroth said the KDR has been monitoring licenses coming from out of state and noted that many people struggling with the linguistic limitations of Kansas’ written test are getting their licenses in Colorado and Texas, where more language options are afforded.
Garden City’s DMV office will be the first to facilitate the translation services, and Berroth said this program is the first of its kind in Kansas.
“We’re super excited to do this,” she said. “It’s somewhat groundbreaking, and we hope that we can expand it to our other offices. We’re starting just here in Garden City. We have to be kind of careful with our staff, and we don’t have an abundant amount of time or staff to handle just thousands of people coming in, but we want to get there.”
Berroth said some states offer as many as 12 languages in the written portions of their driving tests, but noted that adding actual translation services available during the driving test itself is “huge.”
James Schell, western Kansas regional manager of KDR’s driver’s license division, said those experiencing language barriers struggle almost exclusively with the written test, while they handle the actual driving test much better.
Schell said he formerly worked with Chinese students at Fort Hays University, who faced linguistic limitations. He noted that for them, the driving test was “easy,” while the written test remained problematic.
According to Schell, Kansas DMVs have allowed translators to assist at the counter with registration, but that this program marks the first time that translators can accompany people to the test terminal.
Ahmed said she believes the service will keep more people in Kansas.
“I think this is going to be a success because we want people to stay in,” Ahmed said. “We want them to be in Kansas. And for them, getting the driver’s license, getting their Kansas ID, it’s a sense of belonging, and they do belong here.”
Ahmed said she has known “quite a few people” who have left the state over troubles with their driver’s license and state ID. She said a popular destination for such expats is Minnesota, where “it’s easier for them.”
“There are the language programs. There are the translation programs,” she said. “The books are translated. It’s a lot easier. But we want to welcome people, and we want people to have a home here. I want people to be like me. I want them to find another home. I call this my home far from home. I’ve been in Garden for five years now, and I love it.”
Ahmed said she already works with local doctors and at the new refugee clinic, New Hope Together, to provide translation services. She explained that for those unable to speak English in Garden City, it’s almost like being blind and deaf.
“Language, it’s a big, big, big gap,” she said. “Not being able to understand English at all, even a little bit of English, it’s just as much as you not being able to hear or talk. That’s how it is. There’s no difference — if you don’t hear or talk or if you don’t speak the language.”
She said everyday people can help the immigrant and refugee community just through patience.
According to Ahmed, Abdi has been in Garden City for one year. She explained that Abdi is the mother of a 7-month-old baby and needs a driver’s license to take proper care of her son.
“Being a single mother, if she he has an emergency, she needs to be able to drive to take care of her baby,” Ahmed said. “Being a mother comes with responsibility, being able to put your kids first. But how are you going to be able to? Like your baby is sick at night, and you need to drive them to the emergency room. What do you do if you can’t drive?”
Ahmed said Abdi already has failed her driving permit test twice and has been studying English to help her pass. She said before the results of the test that if she failed again, she wouldn’t be able to try again for six months.
Despite her efforts, Abdi failed her test on Wednesday by missing one question too many. Test takers are allowed five incorrect answers, and Abdi had six. Regardless, Abdi said with the help of Ahmed that she was very glad to receive the assistance she did and feels she can do better next time.
The DMV attendant even surprised her by telling her she could return the next day.
“She’ll be back tomorrow. I’ll be with her,” Ahmed said. “She feels very confident with (the program) that she will be able to get her driver’s license. She is going to go home and study it more, and tomorrow she will be back ready.”
Source: GC Telegram