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Ashok adjusts his seat and mirrors, looks both ways, and slowly pulls out of the carpark. Beside him is Red Cross volunteer, Ross Cullen, who calmly directs the learner driver around Nelson’s streets.
These weekly lessons are part of the Open Road driver training programme for former refugees, run by Red Cross in four resettlement locations: Auckland, Palmerston North, Nelson, and Dunedin.
The programme relies on volunteers like Ross, who dedicate a few hours each week to teaching former refugees the ins and outs of driving in New Zealand.
Ross didn’t have much experience as an instructor before he started giving lessons, but he was put through an intensive training course with a professional, who provides ongoing support to Red Cross volunteers.
Ross certainly has the patience for teaching. He has a naturally calm demeanour and gives direct instructions, perhaps a result of the many years he spent as a university professor.
“When you start [with a new learner], you’re pretty cautious and on edge about how it’s going to go,” he says.
“We have a dual controlled car so there’s a brake on the passenger side, so sometimes I have my foot hovering over that at crucial times, like at roundabouts, for the first two or three sessions.”
Ashok is the fifth person Ross has mentored over the past two years. He is an incredibly quick learner with prior driving experience; some of the people Ross has helped have started from scratch.
“Some have never been in a car before, never driven a car, and, in one case, he’d never ridden a bike before. So for some people it is a big challenge, learning how the car responds and how you have to manage everything.”
It can be difficult but Ross feels well supported by Red Cross and all his mentees have gone on to pass their driving tests.
Success through driving
Getting a New Zealand drivers licence is an important part of the resettlement process for former refugees.
Ashok, like many of the people taking part in the course, has a young family. His daughter is three years old and he finds it difficult to take her to kindergarten and make it to his classes at NMIT on time.
He’s also planning for the family’s future in Nelson.
“I want to work and my home is far away from where I want to work,” he says.
For Red Cross volunteers like Ross, helping people achieve these goals is the rewarding part of the job. He enjoys seeing people become progressively more confident on the road and then graduating from the course with their restricted licence.
“You can contribute to their development and being able to succeed in New Zealand if you can help them get their licence,” he says.
How to help
We’re looking for mentors who can support former refugees as they refine their driving skills. You can apply for the position and find our more information about what’s involved here.