With permission to drive, Iraqi woman finds American dream

December 21, 2012

Americans love driving. It's a symbol of our freedom that's often taken for granted. But for many people in the Middle East, and especially for women, it's a form of independence that doesn't come easily. Recently in Tucson, reporter Sarah Bromer met a young Iraqi immigrant who made the emotional step of taking the Arizona Driver's Permit Test.

FATIMA ALSAMAWI: I feel, uh, very nervous.

Family Portrait Fatima Alsamawi (left), with her daughter Rana, celebrates with car keys. (Photo by Sarah Bromer)

Family Portrait The Alsamawi family at their home in Tucson. (Photo by Sarah Bromer)

SARAH BROMER: This is Fatima Alsamawi. She's 33 years old and married, with three kids. She just moved to Tucson two months ago from Iraq. It's 8 a.m., and we're sitting outside the Motor Vehicle Department, waiting for her to work up the nerve to go inside.

BROMER: Did you study last night?

ALSAMAWI: Yes. Yes, for a long time. Until one o'clock in the morning!

BROMER: She'd already failed the permit test three times. Fatima's afraid that if she fails again, she'll start crying.

BROMER: What if you pass?

ALSAMAWI: If I pass? Yeah... I will be happy. And cry!

BROMER: You're going to cry no matter what.

BROMER: There are three reasons why passing this test is so hard for Fatima. One, her English is shaky. Two, in Iraq, the laws are different, and nobody followed them, anyway. And, three, Fatima has never driven a car.

ALSAMAWI: In Iraq, no, no. No, I don't.

BROMER: She explained to me that it's not against the law for women to drive in Iraq, but after the U.S. invasion in 2003, radical militias took over the neighborhoods. If they caught a woman driving, they would punish her, maybe even kill her. And Fatima had to be extra careful, because her father and brother were working as translators for the U.S. Army. The entire family was being hunted by Al Qaeda. They were moving from house to house and wearing disguises whenever they went outside.

BROMER: And so, I mean, did you feel, like, okay, first I'm a woman, and they already don't like it when women drive, and then, did you think they might recognize you?

ALSAMAWI: Yes, maybe they follow me, and they kill me. Maybe this militia follow my kids in their school and kill them.

BROMER: Was that happening to other people you knew?

ALSAMAWI: Yes. Yes, there happen.

BROMER: In 2008, Fatima says, Al Qaeda kidnapped her brother. After her family paid a ransom to release him, the U.S. government granted Special Immigrant Visas to her brother, her father, and their families. They all moved to Tucson. And three years later, Fatima was finally able to join them. You would think, for someone who'd escaped from Al Qaeda, facing the Arizona Driver's Permit Test wouldn't be scary, but I've never seen anybody so nervous to take a test.

ALSAMAWI: Do you think I pass today?

BROMER: Do I think you're going to pass? I think you can pass.

BROMER: And she does. Thirty minutes later, Fatima emerges with the permit in her hand.

ALSAMAWI: It's a good feeling...new feeling, I don't know. [Crying] Sorry, I'm very sorry. It's the first time. You didn't imagine this. It's big thing for me. New thing, here. New life here in America. Yes, I hope.

BROMER: An hour later, Fatima takes her first, white-knuckled drive around the block with her parents. It's a classic scene, with her father shouting instructions from the back seat.

MUSADAQ ALSAMAWI: Just push the brake, just slowly. Now go. Go. Don't look for your feet. Go, go! No, don't be hesitant; this is very big mistake. Go, go, go, don't stop. Go. Brake, brake, brake, brake! Good, good, good, good. Now you are a good driver!

BROMER: Afterwards, back at the family's house in a small development on the outskirts of Tucson, they celebrate with cakes and tea.

FATIMA ALSAMAWI: I'm being very happy, like I'm a success in something big, yes.

BROMER: I ask Fatima's oldest daughter, Rana, if seeing her mom drive makes her want to drive, too.

RANA ALSAMWAI: I want a car in my birthday, in my 16th birthday. I think it's Ferrari? Uh, Chevrolet, um, limousine?


RANA ALSAMAWI: I want to be like a real American.

BROMER: For now Fatima doesn't dream of cruising down the I-10 in a Ferrari. She'd like a Toyota Camry, and she wants to do some pretty practical things with it.

FATIMA ALSAMAWI: To find a job, to study -- yes, college, study in college -- took my kids to their schools. It's the start of the way of my freedom as a woman.

BROMER: Fatima will take the final test, to get her full driver's license, next month.