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Street-Level Youth Media is a non-profit, media arts literacy organization serving Chicago's youth.  We teach audio engineering, mixing, video production, digital photography, online journalism, and more.  If you are between the ages of 12 through 24, all of our programs and services are free.

If you live in Chicago and are between 12 - 24 years old, come take part in one or all of our media arts programs, book a private studio session, use our computer lab or join one of our clubs.  We also host an open-mic on the first Friday of each month.  

CARRY ON CABBIE: How Refugees from Somalia Navigate a Living

Mild Sauce

A Youth-Run Webzine From Chicago.

CARRY ON CABBIE: How Refugees from Somalia Navigate a Living




Bobby Musker and Grace Zelle

Jama eventually made his way to Chicago to seek asylum. And his survival hinged on his ability to know his way around an unfamiliar city; all the while navigating in 82 inches of seasonal snowfall.

Jama is a former refugee from the East African nation of Somalia. He was uprooted and relocated to a refugee camp in Kenya following Somalia’s bloody civil war in the 1990s. His only living relative was his sister who helped him transition into the camp. While it was a house, it was far from a home.

“The camp was in a jungle. We made a house out of trees and put plastic bags over the house as a roof,” he said with a shrug.

Coming to America was a game of chance. The selection process for emigration and resettlement was similar to a lottery. For 17 years he waited for his name to appear on a cork-board in the camp. And though his number wasn’t drawn amongst those who inhabited the camp in 1993, his wife’s number was.

On July 16, 2009, the couple boarded a plane and filled out an I-94 form. The 27-year-old Jama and his wife Abshiro, who was four and a half months pregnant, were on their way to legitimizing their move to the United States. First stop, Phoenix, Arizona.

Jama had nearly two decades to consider what he would do if he ever made it out of the camp. However, he likely didn’t foresee that he would someday be delivering strangers in a strange land. And definitely not through five months of snow and ice.

“I was excited because I had never seen snow before,” he commented. He then advised after learning the hard way, “When driving in snow don’t give it too much gas, don’t brake too much.”

The process to become a cab driver has been a lengthy one for Jama. He had to pay an initial $270 fee to take a two-week course at Olive-Harvey College. The course book was hefty and he didn’t pass the final exam. For an additional $270 he was granted the opportunity to retake the test. This time he passed. By January 7, 2013, he was on the road.

Mneur’s journey to America was a lengthy one. Like Jama, he was relocated to a camp in Kenya where he lived for two years. Eventually Mneur and his family resettled in Minnesota through a refugee agency. There he attended high school, and eventually spoke fluent English. His journey was relatively short compared to his sister’s.

He explained that she first lived in a refugee camp in Somalia. There she lived in a tent in a large open field. Eventually, she moved to a camp in Kenya.

“I sometimes watch YouTube videos of what life is like in the camps. It’s crazy,” Mneur commented. “She (My sister) didn’t enjoy it at all.”

In Minnesota, he lived amongst a large community of Somalis. Despite the temperature extremes they were now experiencing, they adapted well. So well in fact that they populated a part of Minneapolis once named an “All-America City” andcalled it “Little Mogadishu.”

Mneur left this familiar setting and established himself in Chicago. Though the Windy City was only a slightly less warmer option, it held greater opportunities.  Here he learned to drive a cab while attending school.

“They (Chicago drivers) are a lot crazier than when I used to drive in Minnesota.” Whenever he returns to his adopted home in Minnesota his family implores, “Why are you driving like this?” he recalled with a grin.

He first took the job because it was the easiest to find in Chicago, and it paid well. But he doesn’t enjoy it much.

“There’s not a lot of good things about being a driver to be honest,” he replied. “I have a lot of tickets. About 15 parking tickets mainly.”

Deeq Isse, a Somalian who socializes with his fellow cabbies at the East African restaurant on Clark, also relocated from Minnesota in 2000. He’s worked as a driver in Chicago for four years, and his current shift is from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Isse has also racked up a sizable amount of parking tickets during his stay in Chicago. But if that was the extent of his unfortunate experiences, he would have been relieved.

“I once killed a dog by accident,” he said remorsefully.

He was sued for the incident and taken to court, but was ultimately cleared of all charges.

The wages differ day to day, and some days are decisively better than others. Isse recalls earning over $700 this past New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately his pay, as well as his comrades', took a huge hit when ride-sharing Apps became popular. Essentially this format allows anyone with a phone and a car to become a cab driver.

Driving cabs is but a stepping stone in their journey, as they all expressed a desire to earn a degree with professional promise. Mneur studied medical billing and coding briefly in Minnesota, Isse took two years of general studies at Truman College in Chicago, and Jama is currently taking classes on the Internet to become an IT specialist.

Though they hope for greater things to come, they consider themselves very lucky to be here. There are many folks in Somalia who still watch for their name to appear on that cork-board; Jama’s 68 year-old sister is one of them.

“I never wanted to be a cab driver,” Mneur said. “But I do want to be here. I love it here.”