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A refugee family becomes Canadian... one driving lesson at a time

On the snowy streets and empty parking lots of Dauphin, Manitoba, a Syrian refugee family is undergoing a Canadian rite of passage.
Dauphin, Manitoba resident Kathy Bellemare with her driving student, Asya Almohammad. (Stephanie Cram)

By Stephanie Cram

When Syrian refugee Asya Almohammad first immigrated to Canada nearly two years ago, she didn't realize she'd be learning to drive on the snowy streets of Dauphin, Manitoba.

Hers was one of three families sponsored by an inter-faith church group in Dauphin.

Church members Kathy and Regent Bellemare said they wanted to get involved after seeing news footage of the death of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a Turkish shore in September 2015.

(DHA/Associated Press)
"It's heartbreaking when you read about what is happening in other communities," said Kathy.
When you have the ability and resources to do something about it, then it's time to get involved.- Kathy Bellemare

Helping the families adjust to Canadian living involved a lot of tiny learning experiences.

"We realized that not only would we need to bring the families to Canada and teach them English, but we probably would also have to do the things that most Canadians take for granted," said Regent.

"One of them is the ability to drive a car."

Kathy Bellemare teaching Syrian refugee Asya Almohammad to drive in Dauphin, Manitoba. (Stephanie Cram)
"In the fall of last year I asked [Asya] if they wanted to learn to drive, and they said yes," says Kathy.

"We didn't have to twist their arms... I just thought, 'Wow, that's really cool because they're in a new country and they're game.'"

Asya's husband, Louia Alassaf, was the first to learn how to drive, with the help of Regent.

"This is a farming community, so if Louia were to get himself a job as a farmhand, he would have to drive to the farm area," says Regent.

"And just going shopping for groceries and stuff... you can't lug three, or four, or five, or six bags of groceries on a cold winter day that easily if you're walking."

Asya Almohammad behind the wheel. (Stephanie Cram)
Now Kathy is helping Asya learn how to drive, which is a big change from her daily reality in her home country, Syria, where it isn't very common to see women driving.

"Women in Syria stay home, and women here in Canada work," says Asya, who adds that she wants to learn to drive to have the freedom to run errands whenever she wants, and to pick up her children from school.

Every Sunday morning, Kathy and Asya meet in the parking lot of Dauphin Market Place mall for their lessons.

I have tremendous freedom as a Canadian woman, and it gives me great pleasure to be able to show her the possibilities of what she could have for her life.- Kathy Bellemare

"To know that you're making a difference in someone's life... it [is] just such a feeling of happiness."

Regent Bellemare, Louia and Asya Almohammad, and Kathy Bellemare. (Stephanie Cram)
Since moving to Canada, Asya says that her family has expanded to include her sponsors.

"Now I don't just have my husband and my children. Regent, Kathy... that's my family," says Asya.

Once Asya passes her driving test, she says that the first place she wants to drive to is the mall.

Asya and Louia Almohammad. (Stephanie Cram)
"After I pass the test, I want to go to the mall with my family and Kathy... and eat ice cream," said Asya, who says she went out for ice cream when she passed her learner's license.
About the Producer

Stephanie Cram is an associate producer for Unreserved. She started at CBC in 2016, with CBC Indigenous. Before working for CBC, Stephanie was a trainer with the Journalists for Human Rights Indigenous Reporters Program, and lived in a small community called Sachigo Lake First Nation. In 2016, she was the recipient of the CJF Indigenous Journalism Fellowship. In her spare time Stephanie likes to listen to podcasts, binge Netflix series, and try out new soup recipes.