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  • Writer's pictureSophia Qureshi

“We don’t have enough to keep it going”

A program providing driving classes to refugee and immigrant women, which Sophia Qureshi wrote about in December, is on hold due to lack of funds

 
A Women Behind the Wheel student who recently emigrated from Afghanistan sits in the car with a driving instructor. | Photo by Sophia Qureshi

Editor’s note: Last week, Sophia Qureshi checked in with Women Behind the Wheel, which she’d first written about in December. According to Sarah Karim, the executive director of the nonprofit that operates the program, it had been put on hold due to lack of funds. However, since Qureshi published her story, Karim’s organization has seen an outpouring of support and donations, enabling it to restart Women Behind the Wheel. “We are incredibly grateful,” said Karim. “It will move slowly, but at least we are up and running.”


 

Women Behind the Wheel, a one-of-a-kind program that provides free driving lessons to immigrant and refugee women in metro Atlanta, has paused those services due to a lack of funding. Students who had been taking lessons and those who were enrolled to start have been told to not expect any classes at the moment, said Sarah Karim, executive director of Ethaar, the nonprofit that runs the program.


The program, which I reported on in December for the Cost of Living Project, provides a vital service in metro Atlanta, where a single driving lesson can cost upwards of $100. In a region where accessible public transportation is virtually nonexistent, it’s been a lifeline for those who need to get on the road to start their lives here but have limited income.  


For now, Ethaar, which runs a range of programs to support newly arriving families in the region, has been able to connect driving instructors who have worked with Women Behind the Wheel to nonprofits like the Afghan American Alliance of Georgia, which has some funding to pay for its own students. But Ethaar can’t provide any free lessons as it did before.


“I don’t know of any other nonprofit that does what we are doing.” —Sarah Karim, executive director of Ethaar

Ethaar, a community-based local nonprofit, doesn’t just run this driving program; it also helps newly arriving families settle into their new homes: Last week, it stocked a home in Lithonia for a family arriving from Pakistan. Ethaar also hosts donation drives and partners with local groups on economic empowerment and youth education. The drop in funds has impacted all of these programs.


Women Behind the Wheel has graduated more than 230 new drivers since it started in 2018. The organization has provided women, many of whom are newly arriving from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, with lessons taught by instructors who had previously been in their shoes: immigrants who are culturally sensitive and bilingual or multilingual. Students take 10 to 14 hours of lessons, acquiring enough on-the-road experience to pass the road test and safely navigate metro Atlanta. Ethaar pays $55 for each driving lesson, so enrolling one student in the course costs around $700.


Part of the reason for the drop in donations is that donors are tapped out from global crises, “whether it’s Gaza, Sudan, Congo,” Karim said; it’s getting harder to make the case to give locally. And since Ethaar is almost entirely funded by community members, she said, it lacks the stability of bigger resettlement agencies that receive federal and state grants. The organization recently had to let go of its sole case worker, who supported newly arriving families in Clarkston. Earlier this month, Ethaar launched a fundraiser on Facebook, with the goal of raising $30,000. So far, it’s raised just over $1,300. 


“Everyone has limited funds. When they think of giving, they’re probably thinking of Gaza, first and foremost. And that’s why we’re struggling,” Karim said. She understands, she added: “I am overwhelmed by all that’s happening in Gaza. So I imagine so is everyone else.”


“Everyone has limited funds. When they think of giving, they’re probably thinking of Gaza, first and foremost.” —Sarah Karim, executive director of Ethaar

Karim said she knows that Ethaar provides a critical service, and one that needs to be funded again: “I don’t know of any other nonprofit that does what we are doing.” She’s also applying for federal and state grants, and said that while it might take some time to get Women Behind the Wheel up and running again, she’s optimistic: “Right now we are struggling, but inshallah, we are still hopeful.”


 

To donate to Ethaar’s driving program, click here and select “Women Behind the Wheel” from the dropdown menu.

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