• Melissa Rosales

In Lincoln, Women Refugees Learn How to Drive With a New Friend

Published for Nebraska Public Media

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Virtually everyone in Nebraska drives a car, but what about the refugees who didn’t grow up behind the wheel? Despite language barriers, Juniper Refuge, a small non-profit in Lincoln, teaches women refugees how to drive, and also build lasting friendships.


As Hliwa Hussan drives along North 27th St. in Lincoln in her silver, 2011 Nissan Sentra, part-time worker and volunteer Sarah Northcutt is beside her, watching her speed. There’s an interpreter sitting in the back seat. Hussan, a Yazidi refugee, has been learning how to drive with Northcutt since October. She failed the last two driver’s tests she took because of speeding, but she’s not giving up.


The housekeeper at a downtown hotel plans to take her third test next week.


"She's saying that it was so hard for her even if it was cold, even if it was snow, she has to walk and go to work," Interpreter Laila Saleh said. "And she was all the time crying when she was walking to go to work. And if she was in Iraq, she didn't have to drive or work. Her life would go easy, but here you have to learn how to drive."


Hliwa Hussan, Sarah Northcutt, and interpreter Laila Saleh pose in front of Hassin's car. Sarah Northcutt usually teaches Hliwa Hussan twice a week. Laila Saleh recently joined as an interpreter. Before her, Hussan's son would ride in the car and interpret. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

Last year, Hussan’s husband passed away in Iraq, right around when Juniper Refuge started its volunteer driving program and Northcutt came into her life. Some of local therapist Colleen Lecher’s clients are refugees like Hussan.


"That personal contact of that volunteer helping them felt like somebody cared, that they weren't alone and that they were trying to empower them rather than take away their power," Lecher said. "And so to get them to learn and to grow during a time of COVID and to have contact was really a blessing for these women."


Lecher said refugees like Hussan are used to living in close quarter communities and lost that culture when they moved to Lincoln. Their mental health also suffered. Lecher said her clients isolated themselves during the worst of the pandemic and they got more depressed and anxious.


"They were afraid of a hidden enemy, during the COVID, just like ISIS could attack at any time, " Lecher said. "[The] COVID-19 virus was like, in many ways, like ISIS that could kill them. And they were afraid."


Lecher wanted to help the women start to build back their sense of power and confidence. She thought driving could be the next step in bringing them closer to the community, so she pitched the idea to Juniper Refuge director Nikki Long.


"We want to meet people right where they are, and we want to connect with them relationally and actually come alongside of them, as a friend, with the patience to get to know them, as an individual, as a human also living in our city," she said


The driving program is still in development, Long said. Juniper Refuge only has five staff members, with about 10 volunteers. They just hired an interpreter a few weeks ago. While there are teaching orientations and English courses, Long said it’s a challenge to find the best way to meet the women right where they are.


Melissa Willits said the biggest challenge while teaching Sameera Rasho, a Yazidi mother of eight, is the language barrier. Rasho is a homemaker and takes care of her family. Her husband has health issues that make it unsafe for him to drive or work.


"But she wants it so bad, that she tries so hard that it's slower, we go a lot slower because of that, but it's okay," Willits said.


The Lincoln Public Schools educator has four children and a second job but she still meets with Rasho every Monday night.


"I remember the very first time we ever drove, I found an empty parking lot of a factory. And she was so nervous that I had to put the car into gear for her, " she said. "She would not put the car in gear. And the whole time we drove, she never once touched the brake or the gas, we just kind of cruised around."


Months later, they’re still driving in parking lots, but Willits said she’s amazed to see Rasho’s confidence grow. Next week, they’ll be heading out on the streets.


Director Nikki Long said the driving program is more than just driving, volunteers are also becoming part of someone’s life.


"We want a program to meet (the) need, but then that's it. Okay, great. This person can drive, they feel independent, self sufficient. That's a great success, " Long said. "But what is the deeper thing there? Was there anything greater that's happening?"

Melissa Willits poses beside Sameera Rasho in front of her car. Melissa Willits volunteered to teach Sameera Rasho how to drive because she thought, if she couldn't help people monetarily, she could help them with her time. (Photo by Melissa Rosales, Nebraska Public Media News)

When Hussan’s husband passed away, Northcutt helped her print pictures of him. Every time Willits comes, Rasho sets something on the table like tea or Arabic bread. Rasho’s daughter, Zahraa Eedo, said Willits is important to their lives.


"If something we didn't understand any paper we have she always like tell us," Eedo said. "My old sister, she's 21, she doesn't have her Medicaid. She [Willits] applied for her. She sometimes helped me with my homework."


Through hearing about their lives, Willits realized how lucky she is to have what she has, and she doesn’t take it for granted.


"I kind of went into it feeling like, I was going to go in it to help her. But she has kind of given me things in return that doesn't compare," Willits said. "It makes your heart full. You learn about other people. It makes you feel good that you help someone get to where they want to be."


Rasho said she’s happy to have her friend in her life.


Currently, there are five women learning how to drive in the program, but four women are still waiting for other volunteers to teach them.

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