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Why Drive A Taxi? - 2002-03-08


English Feature #7-34692 Broadcast April 9, 2001

In many American cities, the majority of taxicab drivers are foreign born. Washington, D.C., is no exception. A visitor coming to the capital is greeted by scores of taxicabs whose drivers speak English in dozens of different accents. Today on New American Voices immigrant taxi drivers talk about their reasons for choosing this line of work.

As the noon-hour commuter trains empty their passengers onto the sidewalk of Washington's central train station, called Union Station, a line of yellow, green, white and red taxicabs inches down the building's long parking ramp. Once a cab completes its five-minute trip to the bottom of the ramp, its driver acquires a passenger and speeds away.

Sound of traffic, speeding away

At the top of the ramp is Ayee, who would only give his first name. Ayee immigrated to the United States from Ghana in 1967. He now lives in Washington for only about half of the year, and drives a taxicab, basically, in order to pay for his trips back to Ghana. Ayee says that working as a taxi driver gives him a degree of independence that he otherwise would not have.

"Driving a cab gives me the flexibility to go home and come back. So when I come back, I drive a cab. I don't think any company will employ me when I go home at any moment's notice and stay there for six months or nine months, so this is the most convenient job for me. And I like it. I like driving a cab."

Another taxi driver waiting for his turn to pick up a fare at Union Station is Jatinder Singh. Mr. Singh, who immigrated to the United States 10 years ago, earned a Master's degree in history in his native India, and has a degree in computer technology from an American community college. Given his education, he says he was surprised to find himself driving cabs. He says he left a job in the computer field because he felt he was being discriminated against.

"I thought maybe I'd have a better future, maybe here I'd be a schoolteacher, or have any professional job. I did a computer job. Just last four years, I'm an Internet expert. But they already have discrimination and I quit their job and started cab. They don't like people looking different than them, because I'm Sikh, I have a turban that looks different from other people's."

Daniel Cromer, who emigrated from Sierra Leone in 1972, also received some of his education in the United States. With a Master's degree in city planning from Howard University, here in Washington, Mr. Cromer hoped to return to Sierra Leone to practice his profession. But he says he was told by the country's chief city planner that there were no job opportunities for him in Sierra Leone. So Mr. Cromer tried to find work as a city planner in America.

"I went to a few interviews. One of them I was told that I could not be taken because there was somebody who wanted the job within the office. That means most of us who went there were not taken, except that one person. And for the other I went and I think I did very well in the interview, but was not taken. So I give up, and decided to become a cab driver."

About half the cabdrivers work for taxicab companies, but Stephanos Gvambrla Godad is one of those who owns his own cab. Mr. Godad emigrated from Eritrea after visiting his brother in Washington, D.C. 12 years ago. The degree in drafting and land surveying that he earned in Eritrea landed him a surveyor job in Washington. But when his company moved to another town, it was too far for Mr. Godad to commute, and he decided to begin driving cabs to earn money. Still, he feels that he had a number of choices.

"I don't find any problems finding a job here. If I like to work in a hotel I can work in a hotel, and if I go to school, if I study, I can find another, better job. Therefore I don't find any problem in America for myself, you know. Because I am working, I'm helping my family. Therefore I like America -- but I like home more."

Among the drivers standing outside their taxicabs waiting for the line to move down the ramp of Union Station is Donald William Roberts. He emigrated from Sierra Leone in 1978. Like many of his colleagues, he first started driving a cab to pay for his college education in America. After college he held several white-collar jobs in industry, then worked as a restaurant manager and an insurance salesman. Mr. Roberts believes that regardless of his education and work experience, driving a taxi is the best employment for him.

"Things happened that caused me to come back to cab driving. When I got laid off the last time, I got so angry that I decided to come back to driving a cab because it gave me the chance of being free. I can take off when I want, I can go to Sierra Leone if I want to go to Sierra Leone. I can do anything that I want to do without having to report to anybody."

Next week on New American Voices - an immigrant from Ethiopia talks about the difficulties, the advantages, and the daily experiences of driving a taxi in the U.S. capital.

This script is courtesy of New American Voices intern Richard Hagerman, a student of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

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