Lete Izuz walks around a red Honda Insight, inspecting some of the different features of the hybrid car. But she's not buying it — the new Canadian is learning how to drive.

Izuz has been living in the country for six years and officially became a Canadian citizen last year. But one thing she hasn't done a lot of since coming to Canada is driving on our roads.

"For me driving is fun. I really like to drive, " she said.

The mother of four lived in Sudan for 25 years as a refugee from neighbouring Eritrea. She said driving wasn't a priority for her there.

"I never think, 'One day I want to drive a car.' But when I came here, my husband encouraged me to drive, and I like it."

Izuz with instructor

Lete Izuz goes over some of the basics with Agnieszka Sheehan, IRCOM's newcomer driver education specialist. (Brett Purdy)

Izuz is in a group of 16 newcomers taking driver training through the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM).

The program is partially funded through Manitoba Public Insurance and a private donor, and offers participants 20 hours of classroom time, along with four hours of behind-the-wheel training with a certified instructor and four hours of in-car observation.

The program has had over 100 participants since it started in the fall of 2014, 96 per cent of whom have graduated with a Class 5 learner's licence.

Major employment barrier

Dorota Blumczynska, the executive director of IRCOM, said not having a driver's licence is a big barrier for newcomers looking for employment.

Blumczynska said many jobs filled by newcomers require overnight shifts, or are with manufacturing companies that are not on standard transit routes.

"Those are integral employment opportunities that help people not just maintain day-to-day life but also move further in their lives," said Blumczynska.

Dorota

IRCOM executive directo Dorota Blumczynska says not having a driver's licence is a big barrier for newcomers looking for employment. (Brett Purdy)

She said reliable employment is second only to housing in terms of establishing and building a life and allowing people to purchase homes, access education for themselves or fund their children's education.

It may even affect whether they can potentially sponsor other family who may be waiting to immigrate to Canada.

While the program has had great success in getting newcomers from 24 different countries started in the graduated licensing process here in Manitoba, it has discovered a critical gap — only 15 per cent of the participants have been able to go on and get a full licence.

Need more than 4 hours

Blumczynska said that limits newcomers' employment opportunities, and she thinks her participants need to be able to spend more time in-car and behind the wheel.

"From never having driven to being put behind the wheel, and needing to back up and go forward and brake and signal and use your hands and coordinate your feet and respond quickly and appropriately and have enormous awareness of what's happening around you — those are not skills that anyone in reality could develop effectively and safely within four hours," said Blumczynska.

She said the shortfall in hours is partly because the community support isn't the same for participants in their program compared to other programs, like the one run through high schools — where parents and family are willing and able to invest the practice time needed to develop proper techniques.

Blumczynska said the program needs more capacity to increase the amount of in-car driving time it can offer participants.

Driving 'will make my life easier'

Izuz is already working part-time and her husband has a job in construction, but she is looking forward to being able to shuttle her family around in her own car as opposed to having to rely on the bus.

"It's very important to make your life better. You know you cannot stay waiting for a bus for 30 minutes or 20 minutes, sometimes you miss the bus," she said. 

"I'm a busy mom. I have four children I have to drop to school, I have to drop my son to daycare. [Driving will] make my life easier."