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The driving question for Minnesota’s Karen community: When will the state print materials in the Karen language?

For years, leaders in the Karen community have been asking the Department of Public Safety if it will ever provide the written driver’s test in the Karen language. 

Thousands in the Karen community are struggling to pass the permit test because of the language barrier.
MinnPost photo by Judy Keen

Pah Sein has become a regular at the Driver and Vehicle Services office in downtown St. Paul, where he’s spent countless hours taking the written driver’s license test.

For four years, Sein hasn’t been able to pass the test because he doesn’t read English. Or  Hmong. Or Russian. Or any other languages the test is offered in. The 48-year-old refugee from Burma speaks Karen, a language spoken by the more than 9,000 Minnesotans who escaped persecution and ethnic cleansing in the hilly Southeast Asian country.

But it’s not a language in which the state offers the test. So each time Sein returns to the testing center, he guesses at the multiple-choice questions, hoping that luck will serve where his English fails him. “I don’t have another option,” said Sein, who arrived in Minnesota five years ago. “I need to drive to survive here, to work, to support my family.”

Sein is hardly alone in his frustration. Thousands in the Karen community are struggling to pass the permit test because of the language barrier. That’s why leaders of the community approached officials from the Department of Public Safety (DPS) with an urgent request: provide the permit test in the Karen language for people like Sein.

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“We are asking the driver’s manual to be translated into Karen,” said Morrison Johnny, a program manager at the Karen Organization of Minnesota who was one of the first Karen leaders to introduce the issue to the department. “They offer the test in many other languages. Why can’t we have it in Karen?”

That was three years ago.

After Johnny realized that the idea wasn’t going anywhere, he asked George Thawmoo, a respected leader in the Karen community, to push the agenda further. Since January, Thawmoo has been leading a renewed effort to include Karen on the list of languages provided for the permit test. So far, he and other Karen leaders have met with officials from DPS and Ramsey County — most of the Karen people in Minnesota live in St. Paul — about the issue. But Thawmoo hasn’t gotten much farther than Johnny did before.

“I’m not sure if people have the political will to make it happen,” he noted. “When the system creates that kind of barrier, it makes it very difficult for smaller communities to grow, to adjust to the new way of life in the U.S.”

‘In this country, cars are like shoes’

In recent decades, as Minnesota has become a destination for hundreds of thousands of immigrants and refugees from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, attaining a driver’s license has become a rite of passage for new arrivals — the first big step toward self-sufficiency.

Pah Sein
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Pah Sein

It’s also critical for the economy. Thawmoo, who is also a bilingual counselor at the Wilder Foundation, notes that transportation plays a crucial role in an immigrant community’s economic development, attributing much of his own success to having access to a driver’s license. “Having a driver’s license is a privilege for us and for our community members,” he said. “It’s also a part of the adjustment process. It gives us access to employment.”   

Indeed, lack of transportation remains a massive hurdle for the Karen community, many of whose members lived in refugee camps in Thailand for years before resettling in Minnesota in the early and mid-2000s. Today, St. Paul has the largest and fastest-growing Karen population in the nation, though more and more Karen people continue to relocate for employment to Austin, Faribault, Worthington, Willmar and Albert Lea.

Sein, for example, made the difficult decision in January to quit his job as a garbage collector. It wasn’t because he didn’t want the work; a friend who used to work with him and offered a ride left the job.

“In this country, cars are like shoes,” Sein explained. “If you don’t have shoes, can you go to places? That’s how it feels when you don’t have a car.”

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DPS doesn’t want to talk about it

Yet before anybody can get behind the wheel in Minnesota — even to practice for the road test needed to get a license — they must pass the Class D knowledge test. 

For the past 12 years, Minnesota has made it easier for immigrants to pass the test by providing it in various languages. These days, the exam — and the manual used to study for it — is printed in six languages: English, Hmong, Russian, Somali, Spanish and Vietnamese.

George Thawmoo
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
George Thawmoo

Why not Karen? In their meetings with DPS officials, leaders of the Karen community said they’ve been told the department is hesitant to allocate money to make the test available in the language. “The government is telling us ‘there is no money,’ ” Johnny said. “But if they invest in the program, these people will generate money when they are able to drive and find jobs.”

When MinnPost contacted DPS seeking more information on the department’s process for deciding when it prints non-English language materials, a spokesperson sent a short statement noting, in part, that “the age of the current testing machines, development costs and community need” determine the selection of languages for materials such as the permit exam.

The department then declined numerous requests to discuss if it was considering adding Karen to the list of languages, or when it would do so. Instead, DPS representatives continued to refer to its statement, which also noted that its Driver Services division has organized group testing for people who take classes through private certified driving schools who have Karen interpreters. (Thawmoo says such programs aren’t an option for many in the community due to the cost, often around $600 per person.) 

‘Tomorrow never ends’

Thawmoo and other Karen leaders believe the issue is one of simple fairness: “We need to have equal access,” Thawmoo noted. “You can’t serve one community and not the other. You have to serve all communities equally.”

Until then, Pah Sein will continue to try to pass the test in English. Since he started trying, he’s learned what most of the traffic signs mean, but he still struggles with many of the questions: his latest test score was 40 out of 80 points.

At the Driver Services office, Sein said that he runs into many immigrants — including Hmong, Latinos and Somalis — who take the test in their own languages.

“If they offered the test in my language, I would have passed long time ago” he said. “The English version is hard.”

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Still, Sein continues his regular visits to the testing center. Last week alone, Sein visited the center twice to try the test. “Anytime I go there, somebody tells me, ‘Come back tomorrow,’” he said. “Tomorrow never ends.”