Rides 4 Refugees aims to lower barriers to transportation in Central Ohio

By Janson McNair/Kent State NewsLab

During their high school years, many American teens go through the process of obtaining a learner’s permit. A few months later, they’re ready for a road test. The lucky ones pass on the first try; then, with that piece of plastic comes a declaration of individuality and freedom that encompasses the growing pains of adolescence.

But for most adults, driving is simply a necessity. The Brookings Institution reports more than 90% of Americans commute to work in a car.

When refugees arrive in the U.S., the need to rely on personal transportation can become a barrier. Rides 4 Refugees, a nonprofit organization in Central Ohio, aims to remove it by providing transportation services for refugees including driver training, insurance support and roadside assistance. 

Kevin Thelen, the operations director for Rides 4 Refugees, said transportation is just one line item in the budget required to live in the United States.

Refugees “don’t have a financial pool of money they can work with,” Thelen said. “Most of them come through resettlement agencies that are set up around a country to help them find a place to live… but the one area that is a bit of a challenge for them, and is hard for the resettlement agencies to take care of, is the transportation component.”

Jim Erickson (left) instructs a refugee through the Rides 4 Refugees driver training program. (Photo: Used with permission from Kevin Thelen.)

Rides 4 Refugees has been around for nearly two years. Their core mission is to help central Ohio refugees build a self-sufficient life by aiding in their transportation. 

“Some will get a bicycle early on and actually bike several miles to work every morning and evening, but you know how that goes in central Ohio in the wintertime — it’s not so convenient,” Thelen said.

Charlie Norman, the state registrar for the Ohio BMV, said the process of obtaining a driver’s license for refugees is very similar to the process for for anyone else.

“Anyone who is appearing to get a driver’s license at the BMV has to essentially provide documentation to prove five elements,” he said — “your full legal name, your date of birth, your Social Security number if one has been issued to you, Ohio residence and legal presence.”

The issue comes, he said, with finding reliable ways to practice driving. Refugees looking to get their license have to obtain a vehicle beforehand.

“We do not offer vehicles for use for testing,” Norman said.

Instead, Thelen said Rides 4 Refugees enlists help from the community to provide a vehicle for refugees to practice in, plus provide driving instruction.

One of the driving lessons offered through Rides 4 Refugees. (Photo: Used with permission from Kevin Thelen.)

“We have taken on clients and helped them get to driver’s training or get their driver’s license, but we’ve also worked a lot with the local churches,’ he said. “You have to provide a vehicle that’s safe and reliable… so typically we or the churches would provide a vehicle along with a person that can take them out.”

Language can also become a barrier. According to the Center for American Progress, just 22% of refugees arrive in the United States saying they speak English well or very well.

Norman said the BMV has measures in place to reduce the potential language gap in the process of getting a license. This involves offering knowledge tests in a variety of languages and allowing translators to assist with written testing. When it comes to the road test, this means using diagrams and visual or verbal cues to aid in communication.

“Our examiners are trained how to interact and deal with testers who maybe have English as a second language,” he said. 

Once refugees have obtained a license, Thelen said, Rides 4 Refugees offers assistance in purchasing a vehicle.

“We have a match grant program where we provide $4,000 in addition to the money they put in,” he said.

Beyond helping refugees learn to drive and find a vehicle, Rides 4 Refugees also helps with potential repairs, Thelen said. 

“Having the ability to know what to do if you break down alongside the road, and being able to get support from AAA, I think it’s very valuable,” he said. “We provide the first year of that as well as a limited warranty for the first year.”

In 2024, Rides for Refugees hopes to help 15 refugees obtain reliable vehicles. 

“Our primary goal is to set them up not only with a vehicle, but to be a successful vehicle owner,” Thelen said.

This story was originally published by the Kent State NewsLab, a collaborative news outlet publishing journalism by Kent State students.

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