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From Civil Engineer To Cab Driver

Many of D.C.'s Ethiopian cabbies were professionals in former lives

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A D.C. cab gives someone a ride. Many of D.C.'s immigrant cab drivers left behind professional careers in their home countries.
A D.C. cab gives someone a ride. Many of D.C.'s immigrant cab drivers left behind professional careers in their home countries.

The ranks of D.C.'s taxi drivers are filled with Ethiopian immigrants. Many of them were professionals in their former lives, and when it comes to learning the rules of the game in the U.S., it can be a challenge.

Negede Abebe and Mechal Chame sit in Abebe's cab in Georgetown, talking about how they came to the U.S., what they did before and how they became cabbies. Abebe received asylum, and Chame won a Visa lottery to get to America. 

Abebe was an economist in Ethiopia, working on trade and business issues for the government and for an international organization. So when he got to the U.S., the first thing he did was look for jobs in his field. 

"I tried a lot and couldn’t find any," he says, adding that it was incredibly frustrating. Because he couldn't get hired, he decided to go back to school. In 2008, he graduated with his MBA from Trinity University in Northeast D.C.

"I started driving a cab because … after I graduated in 2008 with an MBA I couldn't find a job," he says. "I'm still paying my student loan driving a cab." 

Chame can relate. He was a civil engineer in Ethiopia, and he couldn't even get an in person interview in the U.S., in spite of his qualifications. He remembers once he tried to get a job as a real estate appraiser. 

"It was a telephone interview, so I was talking to a lady on the other end.  She told me I have a heavy accent," Chame says. "I said, 'What? What does my accent have to do with anything? I’m not going to be your customer service representative or your marketer. The only thing you need from me is just go out, take a physical observation of property and give you a report.'  She said, 'I'm sorry I can't do that.'"

In the end, he worked as a store clerk and a security guard before Becoming a cab driver.

Mohamed Ly came to the U.S. from Mauritania and started out doing odd jobs. Now, he connects immigrants with companies looking for bilingual staff. But these companies sometimes balk at hiring someone with an accent, he says. Abebe's and Chame's stories sound familiar, he adds

"Unfortunately there are some employers with the notion that they're pursuing a diversity agenda, diversify their workforce. But guess what.  They're still reluctant to hire someone who would not project their company as a purely western, Anglo-Saxon company," Ly says.

In addition, companies sometimes worry what customers will infer if their employees have accents. "If you speak with a heavy accent, then the customers will feel like we're outsourcing our call center to India," Ly says. "It projects on their image." 

"Sometimes it is so frustrating," says Abebe. "You send your resume to somebody in HR who is not able to properly read your name and they know that you are from somewhere foreign country so they throw your resume on the side." 

Ly coaches immigrants on everything from accent reduction to networking.  But, he says, the world is changing. Business are waking up to the importance of emerging markets. 

"They're trying to figure out, how can we penetrate this market effectively," he says. "The absolute single key is by leveraging global talent. Where does global talent come from? It comes from abroad."

But for some, the wall they hit after a lifetime of building a career is too much.

"You give up," says Chame, the former engineer. "So I gave up, in my case." Instead, he says, he's gotten "totally consumed" in raising his children. 

"This is what I never regret, and this is something that makes my life meaningful," he says. "I have two beautiful kids, very intelligent kids and  as long as I can support them, I am a free person, I have peace of mind." 

But Abebe, the economist with an MBA, hasn't given up hope of someday getting off the road. 

“I have never imagined myself coming to the U.S. and driving a cab," he says. "But every day, it's a learning point. We need to push farther. I can contribute more than this." 

This story was produced as part of Latitudes, an occasional hour-long radio program from WAMU 88.5 that takes listeners into the everyday lives of people around the world. 

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