Iman Kashkash had just begun learning to drive in Syria when she was forced to flee the country with her daughter, son and daughter-in-law in late 2016. Upon arriving in the U.S. in December of that year, she received a call from Suzanne Akhras, founder of the Syrian Community Network in Chicago, for assistance on adjusting to life in a new society.
At the start of her new life in Chicago, getting through the language barrier proved to be the most difficult thing for Kashkash. But when she heard about the Women at the Wheel program through the SCN, she knew she had to participate.
SCN founded the Women at the Wheel program in August 2018 after they discovered that only one-third of refugee women had their driver’s license compared to their male counterparts, according to SCN’s National Director of Operations, Shannon Sweetnam.
“It’s close to 90% of men have their driver’s license, and a very small percentage of women do,” Sweetnam said. “It’s such a discrepancy.”
By creating the Women at the Wheel program, SCN made it one of their goals to overcome one of the hurdles that made it difficult for refugee women to enter the workforce: easy and accessible transportation.
The program is classroom-based and provides 15 hours of behind-the-wheel training, six permit classes and case management support. Obtaining their licenses not only allows refugee women to access better jobs, but it also allows the women a sense of freedom and independence they likely wouldn’t have experienced in their home country.
The program empowers women refugees, helps them lead self-sufficient lives and encourages them to rebuild their communities.
“They can actually go have fun and enjoy their lives,” Sweetnam said. “They can drive somewhere and have coffee—anything.”
Women at the Wheel helped 50 refugee women receive their driver’s license in its first year of operation.
When recounting the moment she received her license, Kashkash smiled wide and giggled. “She was so happy and excited when she received her license,” said her translator, Amr Othman Agha. “It was like when someone gave her her high school certificate.”