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A smoother road ahead: Pilot program helps put newcomers in the driver's seat

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Ask brothers Trésor and Daniel Namwira when they'll be eligible to take their driver's tests, and they simultaneously fish out their wallets, eyeball the dates on their learner's permits and count ahead nine months.

"I'm going to take the test right away, right away," said Trésor Chimusa Namwira, 21.

The brothers, who left university to come to Canada from the Democratic Republic of Congo a year ago, are recent grads of the Salvation Army's Life and Employability Enhancement Program for new immigrants, otherwise known as LEEP.

Like the brothers, almost all of LEEP's participants are from war-affected African countries.

Last year, with the help of Manitoba Public Insurance, LEEP tried something new -- a driver-training program that mirrors the one high school students take. Twelve participants got 30-odd hours of classroom training, the written test and eight hours of in-car instruction, all for the same $50 students pay in high school.

Normally, new Canadians would need to take private driving lessons at a cost of several hundred dollars, which many newcomers can't afford. It's a simple thing many Canadians take for granted, but a driver's licence makes it easier to get groceries, fetch kids from daycare and get to and from work.

And it opens up a whole new range of job possibilities.

Plus, the brothers noted, it's warmer.

"This is just going to make their lives so much easier," said Michelle Strain, LEEP's program supervisor.

The Namwira brothers came to Manitoba as part of the provincial nominee program, sponsored by their uncle, now their designated driving coach.

Congo, formerly Zaire, has been battered by civil war, conflict with neighbouring Rwanda and human rights abuses on a massive scale. The Namwira brothers are from Bukavu, one of the cities hardest hit by violence.

Even though Trésor was well into his engineering degree and Daniel was just starting medical school in Congo, their family didn't have the funds to drive.

The first time they got behind the wheel was in Winnipeg last summer, a memory that makes them dissolve into guffaws.

"Oh my goodness, I was very nervous," Trésor said.

"Oh my gosh, I thought, 'I'm going to get involved in an accident!' " Daniel added.

Their first foray onto the Perimeter Highway may have been the worst. Sitting side by side in Strain's office, the brothers did a dramatic re-enactment of the death-grip-of-fear each had on the steering wheel during his turn, the wide eyes and the frantic brake-pumping.

Now, after several months of practice with their uncle in his red hatchback, they're confident and relaxed.

Daniel can't wait to stop taking three buses to work and two buses to school -- he's working on a science degree at the Université de Saint-Boniface. Trésor, who plays music on the side and has gigs all over town, is taking English at the University of Manitoba as well as classes at St-B to get his engineering degree back on track.

They said many newcomers pore over the MPI website, take the online quizzes and study the big rule book. But it's almost impossible to pass the written test without help, especially with a language barrier. Words like "curve" and "curb" gave them trouble at first, and the lingo of the road can befuddle people.

"This program is a very good opportunity for newcomers," said Daniel. "A lot of people, they try to do that test three times, four times, even five times, and they can't do it."

If the Salvation Army's pilot project is successful -- if enough people get their licences this spring and summer once the nine-month waiting period is up -- MPI might consider expanding it to other agencies, perhaps into the North End.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2012 B1

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Updated on Wednesday, January 18, 2012 at 10:04 AM CST: Tweaked headline, replaced photo with better-quality shot.

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