Coffs Harbor Learner Driver Scheme allowing refugees to obtain a license

When Sylvie Niyubuntu fled her home country of Burundi amid violent civil unrest, the prospect of leaving her family behind was daunting.

With two of her children in tow and pregnant with her fifth child, she managed to escape from Mozambique to Australia in 2017.

Sylvie and her family settled in Coffs Harbor on the north coast of New South Wales, making the banana capital her new home.

But without a driver’s license, getting around town has become a challenge.

“It’s important to have my license…I needed to help my family and you can’t get around without driving,” Ms Niyubuntu said.

Giving confidence to refugees

Program coordinator Brad Brevitt says having a driver’s license in the Australian region is essential to integrating into the community.(ABC News: Arianna Levy)

A mentorship program for learner drivers, run by the Red Cross, helps people like Ms. Niyubuntu get their provisional license.

Program host Brad Brevitt said the program was designed to mimic how parents would help their children earn hours for their driving test.

“Many refugee backgrounds don’t have access to someone with an unlimited driver’s license, so we match them with a volunteer mentor to help them gain the confidence and skills to drive on the roads,” Mr. Brevitt said.

Man with glasses and a red down jacket pointing in the driver's seat teaching a student
The learner driver program pairs a refugee with a mentor to work together to hone their driving skills.(ABC News: Arianna Levy)

“For people in regional Australia, having a driving license and access to a car is essential to accessing opportunities and services.”

Coffs Harbor is home to 1,602 refugees according to council figures from 2020, many of whom have migrated without identity papers to obtain their permits.

The driver program had a growing waiting list, with the Red Cross now looking to expand its operations and triple the number of volunteers to meet demand.

A hand-deposit in a logbook for a learner driver
The program mimics the way parents would help their children get their hours for a provisional driver’s license.(ABC News: Arianna Levy)

“Obviously the more volunteers we have, the more people can go through the program and there is a significant demand for people in the area to get this help,” Brevitt said.

Program that keeps on giving

The program has successfully helped more than 50 refugees acquire their permits since its inception in 2019.

Man with glasses and wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt smiling
Volunteer Ian Howchin helps refugee drivers obtain their provisional license through the Red Cross programme.(ABC News: Arianna Levy)

Ian Howchin mentored the program for several years and helped four refugees obtain their driving licenses, including Ms Niyubuntu.

Woman with three children, a girl and two boys sitting in a tree with branches, smiling
Ms Niyubuntu says moving to Australia has been difficult, but she is happy her children are having a better life.(Provided by: Sylvie Niyubuntu)

“It makes all the difference because once you have your license, you can be in the community.”

But Mr Howchin said while he helped his students, they also taught him.

“It’s been a very rewarding part of the program, you get to know people from different cultural backgrounds, it really opens your eyes to the world,” Mr Howchin said.

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