British Columbia

Driver's licensing a frustration for some Syrian refugees

For many Syrian refugees, driving independently is a key factor for successfully settling into Canadian life. But in some cases, the rules don't make it easy, and drivers bring interesting habits back from war-torn Syria.

'It would so much simpler if the Syrian licence was good for six months'

Driving instructor Steve Wallace warns student Jawdat Belal that he'll fail the road test if he keeps steering with one hand. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Jawdat Belal palms the steering wheel of a driving school's hybrid car with one hand, turning the vehicle down a residential street in Esquimalt, B.C.

Instructor Steve Wallace sits next to him, offering constant directions and corrections.

"You've gotta start doing hand-over-hand; you've gotta get rid of [that habit], OK? Right turn here. Signal right," he says.

"You can't be doing that ... they'll flunk you," says Wallace with a laugh. "That's your father. Your father's letting you get away with that."

Belal, 18, isn't that different from any teenager, though he and his family arrived in Canada just 10 months ago after fleeing Aleppo, Syria and hiding out in Lebanon.

Jawdat Belal, 18, gets a driving lesson from Steve Wallace. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

He's in Grade 12 and has a job at Tim Hortons. He's saving up for his first car and getting a driver's licence as soon as possible.

"That makes me feel like a Canadian," said Belal, who will need to go through B.C.'s graduated licensing process, with the standard probationary 'new driver' period.

But for his father, Raed Belal, and many other refugees with a Syrian licence, getting properly licensed in a new society with different rules can be a setback.

What's a Syrian licence good for?

Syria doesn't have a licence exchange agreement with Canada. If you arrive in Canada from certain countries — including parts of Europe, Australia and Japan — you can just swap your licence for the local one. But if you're coming from Syria, you need to pass a knowledge test and a road test.

In most provinces, including British Columbia, a driver can use a foreign licence for 90 days before it runs out. In Ontario, it's 60 days, and Quebec allows six months of driving with an out-of-country licence.

Belal's family was privately sponsored by a supportive local church, but Raed Belal said he had plenty of issues to figure out, beyond getting a licence — he had to find a home, get his four children into school and begin learning English.

Raed Belal steers his Mitsubishi through the streets of Esquimalt, B.C. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"If you don't have a licence, you can't get your kids to school. You can't partake in the society and all it has to offer," said Wallace. 

Teaching the rules of Canadian roads

When Syrians started arriving in Canada in large numbers last December, Wallace wanted to help.

He offered free lessons to the head of each privately-sponsored Syrian family in the Victoria area.

Wallace is halfway through the 35 families.

"Most of the Syrians know how to drive. They've been driving for a long time," he said, adding that the challenge is learning how to pass the B.C. road test.

"The problem is — coming from a war zone — a lot of times, they'll be looking at the tops of buildings for snipers. They're looking at the roadside for [explosive devices]. They're going from A to B quickly. They're not messing around. They're not wasting any time.

"They don't signal. They don't shoulder check. They don't do anything. They're worried about getting there alive," he said.

A bombed out vehicle sits in the '1070 Apartments District' in Aleppo. The neighbourhood on the front line was held by rebels until November. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Belal said snipers are usually too far away to see, but driving in Aleppo is very dangerous.

"You have to try to drive fast, because you don't know if bomb coming from the sky," he said.

Delays in the system

Wallace says many of his Syrian students pass the test on the first try, but lots don't. And he says the biggest delay in B.C. is booking the road test.

"You can't get a driving appointment for a road test for sometimes two months," he said. 

Driving instructor Steve Wallace gives Syrian refugee Jawdat Belal some pointers during a lesson in Esquimalt, B.C. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

ICBC said in the past year, just 36 per cent of people were able to book a road test within 20 days.

Wait times in other provinces vary. Drivers in Ontario and Manitoba can expect to wait as long as two months before a road test, but in Saskatchewan and Alberta, it can take just a few days.

With difficulty finding all the necessary documents after fleeing a civil war, and the other demands of settling in a new country, Wallace said it's normal for Syrians to run out of time and go beyond the 90 days before they're properly licensed.

"It would be so much simpler if the Syrian licence was good for six months," he said. "I think as far as the refugee situation is concerned, B.C. and ICBC could do well to extend that period."

Belal agreed that six months would make things much easier. He failed his road test on the first try for steering with one hand.

He's now trying to improve his English and doesn't have a job. He worked as a court reporter in Aleppo, but he's setting his sights on a career driving taxis or trucks.

But for that, he's going to need a new driver's licence.

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker