How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the DMV

By Malia Hamilton, FC 19 Syracuse


When I first heard what my main responsibility at my work site would be, I was dreadfully underwhelmed. My job is to help refugees obtain New York State IDs. This brought to mind long hours at America’s dreaded bureaucratic hub, the DMV, and an intellectually catatonic state, as I would basically be running a taxi service.

That is not how my job is at all.

It turns out my job is surprisingly complicated. Most people need birth certificates, social security cards, and whatever assortment of bills they can find to prove that they are who they claim to be. People dig up wedding certificates and union IDs and W-2s to convince the DMV to give them a document that is essential to getting a job or boarding an airplane.

Refugees don’t have most of these things, so they need a letter from a resettlement agency explaining that the DMV should give them an ID anyway. It is my job to write that letter, and bring it to my boss to have her verify and sign it. It is also my job to know the correct assortment of documents that they will need, which changes depending on how long they have been in the U.S., and then make sure the process at the DMV goes smoothly, and that the information on their ID is correct.

I have made so many mistakes. If I type in a date of birth incorrectly, we will be turned away and asked to get a new letter. If their address on file hasn’t been updated with our system, their ID won’t ever get to their house. I have to be meticulous to ensure that we don’t have to do the process all over again, and so that I don’t waste everyone’s time.

I can be very hard on myself, but I have learned to forgive myself when I make mistakes, and trust that the people I serve will understand. I have also learned that I will sometimes go to great lengths to help people; including driving to several government buildings to help a woman who only spoke Swahili obtain enough documentation. It took us over a month, but she finally received her ID. I gain a strong sense of accomplishment and joy from knowing I have done everything I could to help someone, and having opportunities to go above and beyond have taught me to strive for excellence in my service.

In FrancisCorps, we talk a lot about community. Usually, we are referring to the people we live with, but my community in Syracuse has grown to include many other groups. I have my housemates, my co-workers, my fellow parishioners at Assumption Church, the refugees I serve, and finally, the people at the North Syracuse DMV. I don’t know most of their names, and they don’t know mine, but I look forward to seeing them. They are patient and thorough and understanding, despite having to respect the rules of their department. I have seen them go out of their way to make things fair when people have been waiting a long time, and they always make an effort to talk directly to the people I am with, even when they do not understand English. Even strangers waiting to register their new cars or change the names on their licenses have been friendly and welcoming. These people help make the DMV a place I look forward to spending time at, and when I return after an absence of several weeks, I feel the warmth of returning to a familiar place.

I know this must sound like my brain has melted from all of the time I’ve spent there. Who actually enjoys the DMV? Yes, I do often spend two or three hours waiting there, but when I’m sitting on those hard benches shifting back and forth to try and find a comfortable position, I always feel like I’m accomplishing something.

There have been so few refugees arriving that when I’m at the office I often find myself without something to do, and so it is rewarding to know I am helping someone, even if it is by sitting beside them as we wait for their ID, or as they take the permit test, knowing that they might not pass, and I’ll have to take them again. I use that time as an opportunity to get to know people.

Once, a Congolese boy spent hours speaking French into Google translate to talk to me about school and different types of music he enjoyed. Another time, an Ethiopian woman showed me her Bible app, which converts the Bible from English to Amharic at the touch of a button. I hugged a teary-eyed Somali woman when she passed her permit test on the third try, explained to a Sudanese man that a boyfriend was like a pre-pre-husband, and showed a Pakistani family pictures of an Indian wedding I had recently been a bridesmaid for, all at the DMV.

The joy and satisfaction I feel at the DMV will likely fade in the future, when I am only waiting there for myself, but I know I will keep the sense of patience, forgiveness, and perseverance that I have cultivated through this experience. I am often found at one of the most ordinary places with some of the most extraordinary people, and I am so grateful for all of the time I spend doing it.