Tennessee’s Arabic speakers work to add their language to driver license tests
Ashraf Fam, second from right, in the Nashville Mayor John Cooper’s office, with city officials and Elmahaba Director Lydia Yousef. (Photo: Submitted)
When Ashraf Fam, an Egyptian immigrant, first came to Nashville 16 years ago, he quickly sought to get a driver’s license, knowing that transportation was key to survival in the U.S.
The Tennessee Department of Motor Vehicles offers its driver license test in five languages—English, Spanish, German, Korean and Japanese—but not in other languages more widely spoken in the state in spite of repeated efforts from community leaders and elected officials.
Missing from the available translations is Arabic, despite being one of the most widely spoken languages among immigrants from many different countries, according to figures from Metro Nashville Public Schools.
Although Fam knew some English from his education in Egypt, he still failed the driver’s license test four times.
“I was stressed. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have a car,” he said.
In the decades since he arrived, Nashville’s Arabic speaking community has grown to thousands, many of whom work in the city’s hospitality industry. But even with the population surge, Arabic speakers continue to struggle with transportation, because of the language barrier in the driver license test.
Some Tennessee residents traveled to other states that offer tests in Arabic. Some have family in those states with permanent addresses they could use. Others sought services from individuals offering assistance in acquiring driver licenses, for a price. Depending on the person and the state, aspiring Arabic-speaking drivers may pay anywhere from $1,000-$3,000 to acquire their license in another state.
“From the stories I hear from my community since 18 years ago, since I stepped in this country, it’s getting worse and worse,” said Fam.
Once they acquire their license from another state, new drivers will then need to transfer their out-of-state license to Tennessee.
This should be a straightforward public safety issue. Most folks in Tennessee have to drive to live their lives, and it’s in nobody’s interest to have people driving untested and unlicensed.
– Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville. Yarbro sponsored legislation to allow interpreters to help driver license applicants.
And if they decline to change their licenses to Tennessee, they will still need to prove their residency in Tennessee when seeking government services, such as enrolling children in school. While they are still able to buy, register and insure a car, Tennessee requires identification and proof of residency to obtain a vehicle title, a process made more difficult with an out-of-state license. Car insurance companies may also decline to insure drivers without a Tennessee license.
Fam advises anyone driving with an out of state license to avoid anything that could attract unwanted police attention.
“We just tell them, to be on the safe side, don’t make any mistakes, don’t go over the speed limit, don’t break any stop signs or yield signs,” he said.
Fam, who estimates that approximately 25,000 Arabic-speaking families live in Nashville, has spent years working with other community leaders to have Arabic more widely available . All of his efforts have failed.
Most recently Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, sponsored SB2513, a bill allowing foreign language interpreters to assist applicants during driver license exams. Yarbro’s office worked with the Tennessee Department of Transportation but the bill failed in the State House in March.
“This should be a straightforward public safety issue. Most folks in Tennessee have to drive to live their lives, and it’s in nobody’s interest to have people driving untested and unlicensed,” said Yarbro.
Yarbro plans on reintroducing the bill in November and hopes to pass it during the legislative session next year.
In the meantime, Mohamed-Shukri Hassan, Director of the Nashville Mayor’s Office of New Americans, has been working with state officials on gaining support for the legislation.
“If it was up to the city, we could have done it a long time ago but it’s under the state department, the DMV,” he said.
The Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security is currently considering the request, according to spokesperson Wesley Moster.
But the state’s reluctance to provide more services in Arabic is telling, said Elmahabad Director Lydia Yousief.
“There’s just a lot of islamophobia on this issue and a lot of anti-Arab-ness, as opposed to Spanish,” she said.
And of the government services translated, standard Arabic is used although it is not universally recognized among Arabic-speakers from different countries.
Egyptian Arabic is the most common dialect according to Yousief, because many refugees have stayed in Egypt and Egyptian media is popular in other countries.
No car, no job
After getting his driver’s license, Fam took night classes at McGavock High School to improve his English. For two years, he attended sessions several times a week, knowing that learning English would improve his job options and that others did not have the time or transportation to do the same.
“Few people have a chance like me, and I started as a housekeeper because I did not have enough language (skills) to get a higher-paying job,” he said.
Fam worked his way up to become operations manager at Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center and used his free time to work as a community translator.
While translating for the Nashville Diaper Connection, he learned that many people from his community struggled to even get to the store for diapers and relied on friends for rides.
“Most of the time they text us, ‘can you keep my diapers until I come,” he said.
People want to work, he said, but they need a car and a license to drive. Otherwise people are stuck with limited options. Some people have been forced to work under the table for low wages, and still others, like Fam’s extended family, applied for food stamps to feed their families.
“Nashville is growing, and people (are) seeking factory jobs and service industry job openings, but without a car, it’s impossible,” he said.
And, he adds, Tennessee is missing out on taxes that could be collected from Arabic speakers living in Tennessee.
“They could be charging the Arabic community for cars,” said Fam.
Instead, the government is providing welfare “because people are unable to drive and get a job,” he added.
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