It can be daunting to learn to drive in a new country, let alone when the local language is not your native tongue. That’s why bilingual Open Road driver training mentors like Pa Uk are so important when working with new drivers to achieve their licence.

Ngun Uk Zaathang (Pa Uk) volunteers as an Open Road driver training mentor. Through New Zealand Red Cross’ Open Road programme, new Kiwis with refugee backgrounds receive free driver training with a volunteer mentor, like Pa Uk, along with access to a dual-control car.  A former refugee himself, Pa Uk knows the value of support while settling in Aotearoa.

Pa Uk is a former refugee who was born in Myanmar. He arrived in New Zealand in 2013, settling in sunny Nelson.

“I like it here, it’s good. I have lived in New Zealand for seven or eight years now,” Pa Uk explains. “I work in a company here, packing.”

Even though Pa Uk works fulltime, he still makes time to help people new to Nelson to learn to drive in their new city. Pa Uk and mentors like him guide people who haven’t driven in New Zealand as they get familiar with the road rules and work toward their driver’s licence.

Pa Uk has helped more than four people achieve their restricted, and in some cases, full licence. In total, more than 161 people have come through the Open Road programme in Nelson since it began in 2016.

I like teaching people. When my sister in law and her sons arrived here, I was just teaching her and then when she was confident, she took the test and they passed her.

 — Pa Uk

Margo Ruhen, New Zealand Red Cross Open Road Coordinator and Employer Liaison​, noticed that Pa Uk had been teaching people in his community. She asked if he would be interested in mentoring more new drivers as a volunteer with Open Road. He was more than happy to help.

“I can speak their language, which makes it easier,” explains Pa Uk of the usefulness of being a bilingual mentor.

For Margo and the Red Cross team, mentors who can speak more than one languages are an important part of building new Kiwis’ confidence on New Zealand roads. This also often becomes an important step in their settlement journey.

“Because we are a smaller region, public transport is not frequent. There’s also a lot of agricultural work which often requires being able to travel out to rural areas,” says Margo.

As Margo explains, gaining a drivers licence also provides people with a sense of belonging and connection, as well as the practicality of being about to get children to school or the doctors.

Ngun Uk Zaathang (Pa Uk) is a volunteer Open Road driver training mentor. 

It’s not always so easy to teach people to drive, though.

“Sometimes the first time, new drivers don’t know how to use the car so they use it in break!”, he laughs. “But the first time, I take them to a big area to learn. Then after that, we move slowly and start to drive around the road,” Pa Uk describes.

For new drivers, simply getting accustomed and comfortable in the driver’s seat can be stressful enough, without the extra demand of trying to take in information in another language.  That’s when being able to explain the technicalities of maneuvers in the learners first language can make all the difference, says Margo.

“Having first language mentors is worth their weight in gold.”

Become a driver training mentor

The Open Road driver training programme helps former refugees who have their Learner Licence in Auckland, Palmerston North, Nelson and Dunedin. Having a driver's licence increases former refugees’ independence and helps them secure employment.

“Our Volunteers enjoy the reward of seeing the immense difference it has made for their learner. Nothing quite like the joyous smile on the learners face when they pass,” says Margo.

Mentors must be at least 20 years old, have held a driver's licence for at least two years and be available for a minimum of 30 hours over 12 weeks to supervise a learner driver. At the moment, the team in Nelson is especially keen to hear from Spanish and Burmese speakers.

As a volunteer mentor, you will teach a former refugee learner how to drive over a 12-16 week period. 

We provide full training and ongoing support with a qualified driving instructor. After the training, you will be able to supervise a learner driver in a dual-control car.

By the end of the training, the person supported will be ready to sit their restricted licence.

Sign up today