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Karen People in Twin Cities Seek to Take Driver's License Test in Their Own Language

December 26, 2016 05:52 PM

A driver's license test is all multiple choice, full of rules of the road you need to know in order to drive in Minnesota.

Those who take it must get 80 percent of the questions right. Most people study, and pass. However, no matter how much people in the fastest-growing refugee population in Minnesota study or how often they take the test, they keep failing, sometimes 50 to 100 times.

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Roughly 12,000 Karen people from the southeast Asian country of Myanmar, former Burma, now live in the Twin Cities.

They say it took the 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS team to get the state to hear their pleas to take the test in their language.

We began our inquiry into their concerns a few months ago. We found hundreds of Karen people, on Sundays, packing the eight or so churches in the Twin Cities for their services. We heard over and over again, their frustrations of not having a driver's license.

Outside the walls of the churches they attend on Sundays, with services in the Karen language, they live in a world that sounds unforgivably foreign.

Pah Sen and his wife came to the Twin Cities from as refugees with only the clothes on their backs. They live in a tiny apartment in Ramsey County with their children minus one. Their 7-year-old drowned a few years ago. Sen doesn't have time to grieve. His other children need him to clothe them, and feed them. He lost his job in the rural areas when he lost his ride to work.

"These people are first generation, they are zero education, we place them outside the city," said Morrison Johnny, an advocate at the Karen Organization of Minnesota. "There is no bus line, no transportation."

The organization helps integrate Karen refugees into the communities where they live. Johnny said Karen people want desperately to find work but they struggle. They feel caught in a vicious cycle. They need a car to get to work in the rural areas. They need a license to get a car. They need a driver's permit to get a license.

Sen said he's taken the test at least 70 times. He paid $10 for every attempt after the first two.

"I don't have money to buy food for my kids, and clothes for my kids, because I have to pay for the fee every time," Sen said.

Sen is borrowing the money from friends. He says he believes he could pass the test if he could take it in Karen.
The head of the legislative transportation committee Rep. Frank Hornstein said the state should be making it easier, not harder for people to get driver's licenses. When people can't get them, they become dangers on the road.

"There's no insurance, there's no accountability; this creates a safety issue," Hornstein said.

The Karen Organization of Minnesota told us some Karen people got so desperate to get work, they drove illegally and some of them got into accidents.

"I tried to ask them (the state), can we get Karen language in this system," Johnny said. He said he's been asking the state to deliver the test in Karen for 3 1/2 years.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety is in charge of driver's licenses. Johnny said the Karen Organization of Minnesota offered to work with the DPS to create the test in Karen.

"You can create for Vietnamese, Somali or Hmong, why not Karen?"

We first talked to DPS spokesman Bruce Gordon by phone in July. He told us the DPS didn't offer the driver's permit in Karen. We continued to ask for an interview to find out why not. When he sat down with us a few weeks ago, several weeks after our initial request, what he shared with us surprised us.

"Not every language is offered in our permit testing system but that's going to change," Gordon said.

He told us the state was changing the contractor it uses to give the driver's permit, and a new contractor would offer the test in Karen.

However, we wanted to know why it took so long. The Karen community had been asking the state for more than three years.

"I can't speak about what happened 3 1/2 years ago, but I can tell you we've had conversations with the Karen community in the last several months," Gordon said.

We pressed Gordon further.

"You heard the Karen community tell you, 'Our people are taking this test multiple times, sometimes 70, 80, 90, times and they're failing.' Do you think this was a defining factor for you to be able to help this community take this test in their language?," KSTP reporter Farrah Fazal asked.

"We recognize there were challenges, and we wanted to help," Gordon replied.

Gordon said the new state contractor will offer the test in 50 languages. We broke the news to the Karen community.

"Thank you," Johnny said. "We have been dreaming and hoping," Johnny said.

A translator who helps people like Sen navigate the language said, "So happy, so great now it will be very easy for our Karen people."

Sen continued trying to take the test after we met him and he finally passed. He now has a job. He asks his Karen Organization of Minnesota advocates daily if the state is up and running in Karen yet. His wife is hoping she'll be able to take the test and pass too.

DPS officials weren't able to tell us when the test will be available in Karen. It's hoped that it will be available by June 2017. Rep. Hornstein told us lawmakers will be watching DPS' progress and they'll hold the agency's feet to the fire to get it done as soon as possible.

Credits

Farrah Fazal

Copyright 2016 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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