Driving Home In Their New Home, Chicago


Guest Post by Jennifer Tranmer

Starting over in a new country brings many changes. One is learning to drive. It’s the endless cycle of learning for new arrivals.

Shabbir un Nissa sits calmly in the driver’s seat, hands holding the steering wheel at nine and three, just like she’s been instructed.

Najma Haq tells her to pull out of her parking spot in back of Secretary of State Jesse White’s State of Illinois Motor Vehicle Facility on Chicago’s Northwest Side where, soon, un Nissa will take her driving test.

But today, she is just practicing the route.

With three small children and a husband who is going blind, it is increasingly important for her to learn to drive. “She has to take her husband to the hospital and take her children to school,” Najma Haq said.

For many recent immigrants to Chicago, who need a license, learning how to drive in a new city with heavy traffic flows and its own set of rules is essential. They often come with lack of money, resources or knowledge of navigating their new environment. Finding an affordable school is critical. This is especially true for women like un Nissa whose husbands work all day – to get to work, take care of their families and go about their daily lives.

Najma Haq helps run Asia Driving School, a driving instruction school on Devon Avenue she opened with her brother Akif Syed in 1991. It began when her neighbor needed help learning to drive, but didn’t feel comfortable going to a male for instruction.

More than 30 years later, she has three female and two male instructors and a fleet of seven cars.

The school is open to anyone who wants to learn, but she keeps a staff of female instructors, including her daughter Kiran Haq, for the conservative Muslim women in her community.

“In the Muslim community, it is a main concern,” said Kiran Haq. “They [the women] prefer the female instructors because they can sit with them comfortably.”

A School Unlike Most Others

Kiran Haq said there are few driving schools that have female instructors for the conservative Muslim community; it is mostly men who get into this business.

In conservative Muslim culture, women won’t be alone with men who are not relatives or their husband. In some countries, including Saudi Arabia, women cannot get their driver’s license.

And because many students have little money because of other costly expenses, Najma Haq said she charges fees based on a sliding scale.

“Nowadays, 7 out of 10 students are not charged; they are free because students cannot pay,” she said, adding that she asks for prayers instead of pay.

When they move to Chicago and need to drive to work or care for their families, public transportation takes too long and becomes too costly, said Najma Haq.

According to 2010 census statistics, almost 60 percent of Chicagoans commute to work in a car, either alone or in a carpool. But, driving isn’t only required to get to work.

“If they need to get to appointments for their children to get shots, they cannot always rely on their husbands. They cannot even get themselves a piece of bread,” Najma Haq said.

Najma Haq said it’s also important to have a diversity of language speakers on her staff because many of her students do not speak English – another challenge she faces because driving tests all take place in English.

So throughout her driving lesson with un Nissa, Najma Haq switches between English and Hindi to make sure she fully understands her instruction.

But language isn’t an issue for all of her students.

Ahmedi Dee, 24, moved from India just over a year ago and speaks English fluently. When she got a job in Chicago just over one month ago as a civil engineer, she said public transportation wasn’t an option anymore when she needed to get to work in Lincolnshire.

So, she met with Kiran Haq because she heard from a friend that she was a good teacher.

Dee said she didn’t need to have a female instructor, but “the plus side is that she’s a lady. If I don’t understand something, she’s nice and explains it to me again.”

And men are among their students too.

Udey Kanike, Kiran Haq’s student, moved from Hyderabad, India just over a year ago and needed to learn to drive because he lives in Downer’s Grove.

“All my friends live in the city, so on the weekends I just sit at home by myself,” he said. After passing his driver’s license test last Saturday, he said he looks forward to buying a car so he can see friends and attend events.

“We Respect Each Other”

With students from all over the world, Kiran Haq said she loves working with people with different religions from hers.

“It’s cool to sit with an Indian woman with a religion different than mine,” the devout Muslim said. “When she’s scared she calls his name, and I call my Lord’s name. It’s a sweet thing, and we respect each other. It’s about bonding, too, with your students.”

Back in the driver’s license facility parking lot after un Nissa’s second practice drive, Najma Haq decides the lesson is over. They will try another day.

“Maybe not today, but in two or three more lessons, she will be ready.”



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