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Foreign Language Speakers Say TN Driving Exam Puts Brakes on Getting a License

Katie Riordan

As Afrah Shmmakh quizzes her young, mostly English-speaking class on the Arabic alphabet, she offers praise for a correct response.

“Good job!” she says in accented English to one student enrolled in an Arabic course at Peace Ambassadors USA, an Islamic American community center in Nashville.

An immigrant from Yemen, Shmmakh finds small ways like this to practice her English vocabulary. She’s been here three years. Despite her efforts, she still doesn’t have a solid command of the language.  

Without it, one American dream is still out of reach: driving a car.

“[It’s] all connected to each other,” Shmmakh explains through a translator. “And the language is the main issue.”

Shmmakh, 40, doesn’t speak or understand enough English to take the written driving exam. She has to rely on her husband, who runs Peace Ambassadors, for all of her transportation needs, including shuttling around their four children. Not having a license also makes attending language classes or immersion activities for Shmmakh almost impossible.

“It’s a real, day to day, life concern for people to be able to be mobile,” says Jeff Yarbro, Tennessee’s Senate Minority Leader.

He and other advocates say the state is full of people like Shmmakh, living in in immigrant and refugee communities, who are economically and socially isolated because Tennessee’s written driving test creates a language barrier.

“These are people who have a legal right to live in the United States, have a legal right to work and raise their children in the United States,” Yarbro says. “But we’re still not offering them an easy ability to be able to drive legally.”

The state exam comes in English, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, and most recently, German. That was added when Chattanooga opened a Volkswagen assembly plant almost ten years ago.  

Yarbro wants the list expanded to include more languagesto accommodate Tennessee’s newest immigrant populations.

There have been appeals to offer the test in Arabic and even Swahili, a language spoken in east Africa, says Michael Hogan, director of driver services at the Tennessee Department of Safety. But he says the department currently has other priorities.

“We have a couple of other projects in place that really prohibit us from entertaining it at this point, but we’re always open, and we'll continue to take requests,” Hogan says.

There’s also a matter of funding. Hogan estimates it cost several thousand dollars to add the German test option.  

“From our perspective, three-to-five thousand dollars is pretty expensive when you’re operating on a tight budget,” he says.  

Shmmakh’s husband Yasser Arafat says the the Peace Ambassadors center is willing to help defray costs. Volunteers could fundraise to print the tests or offer translation services for free.  

“There is a problem,” he says. “We’re willing to be a part of the solution.”

Credit Katie Riordan
Fayz Hakir (left) and her husband, Ayoub Eyissa (right), review vocabulary that appears in the driving manual at their home in Nashville.

Sen. Yarbro says he’d prefer to see the Department of Safety take action instead of the state legislature. In the last decade, lawmakers have proposed doing away with foreign-language driving tests all together.

“The fear there is that it ends up being a step backwards rather than a step forwards,” he says. “It could become just another political issue that’s red meat in the sort of divisive debate that we're having in the country over immigration.”  

Advocates like Logan Ebel, who works at the nonprofit Nashville International Center for Empowerment, say that not offering the written test in other languages creates a public safety issue.

“It’s going to increase the number of people who are uninsured because you have to have a driver’s license and own a car to get insurance,” he says. “There will people who will drive even though they don’t have their license.”

It's unreasonable, he adds, for people to put their lives on hold to master English in a state that has few public transportation options.

“If you don’t have a license and don’t want to break the law, then you’re stuck at your house,” he says.

Some immigrants work around the problem by getting licensed in other states. Kentucky’s driving exam, for example, comes in 21 languages.   

The International Center for Empowerment recently created a driving exam study course. But Ebel says the majority of the six-week program was spent building students' English vocabulary rather than actual test prep.   

Ayoub Eyissa, a refugee from Sudan, said it took him six months after arriving in Tennessee to pass the driving test. His wife, Fayz Hakir, has failed three times so far. Ayoub says the license is the key to employment.

“That’s the first question they ask you when you apply for a job. ‘Do you have a car?’” he says. “They want to make sure that you will not have an excuse being late or not coming to the work.”

Credit Katie Riordan
Hakir says tries to squeeze in a little time every day for the exam. She'll write herself study notes to post on her refrigerator.

With a car, Ayoub was able to get a job as a server at a hotel.

Fayz says she’s desperate to work outside the home.

Ayoub is helping her translate and memorize the Tennessee driving manual when he can. But with two kids at home, there’s no speeding up the process.

When asked how long it may take for her to pass, Ayoub translates her response.

“If I continue the same will take me a long time,” she says.  


An initial broadcast of this story stated that Kentucky offers the driving test in 23 langauges. The state offers the test in 21.