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Mean Streets

Some Denver taxi drivers say they've been taken for a ride by their employers

Mean Streets

Abdi Dhuubow sits in his bright-orange cab, idling in a lot just off Speer Boulevard, waiting for his first fare of the night. As the dashboard clock ticks past 6 p.m., he sips from a mug filled with Somali chai and says he's optimistic that this Friday will be busy. According to a Visit Denver reference card tucked into his cab's sun visor, the American Society of Nephrology is in Denver for the weekend, which means 14,000 kidney-disease experts will be out on the town.

Sure enough, the dashboard computer soon bleeps. While it's not one of the visiting nephrologists, somebody has called Union Taxi Cooperative, the company Dhuubow works for, from a bar near the State Capitol. He lucks out with the couple waiting there. Not only are they heading to the Gothic Theatre — a long, well-paying ride down Broadway — but they are employed at a downtown bar. Since they work for tips themselves, service-industry folks usually pay handsomely.

The passengers are gregarious, so Dhuubow chats with them and laughs at their jokes. Over the seven years he's driven a cab, he's learned to quickly sense which riders want to talk and which prefer to be left alone. If customers ask about his thick accent, he'll tell them he grew up in Somalia. But he rarely goes into details: how he lost everything, including the store he owned, in 1996 when he escaped to Yemen in the midst of Somalia's ongoing civil war; how he scored a United States visa in 2001 but had to leave his five children in Yemen, where they wait for him to save up the $10,000 needed to bring them stateside. Instead, he'll just agree with his passengers when they say he should consider himself lucky to be in America.

And if his passengers ask what it's like to be a cab driver in Denver, he'll say he's happy with his job — or at least he's been happy since he stopped driving for Yellow Cab, the city's oldest cab company. But that's all he'll say. "It's too long a story," he'll explain.

*****

To operate a taxi in Denver, would-be drivers must not only land a job at one of the four cab companies approved by the Public Utilities Commission, but they must pass a Denver Department of Excise and Licenses test assessing their knowledge of local taxi laws and city streets. To prepare for the test, many newcomers seek out Ahmed Odawaay.

Odawaay has a small computer shop in the back room of a Somali store in Aurora. His shop serves as a makeshift classroom for taxicab tutorials, where he runs his charges through sample taxi tests administered amid a jumble of power cords and plastic-wrapped stacks of fur coats. "In America, everyone starts somewhere," explains Odawaay, who moved here from Mogadishu in 1997. "This is where I start."

He isn't the only one to get his start in this Aurora strip mall. Over the last few years, these storefronts have become a community center of sorts for the area's growing Somali community. Down the way, past a store that sells international cell phones and Arabic prayer books, a former Chinese restaurant is now a Somali eatery and pool parlor. At the far end of the strip, another cafe serves up gingery chai and sambusas — the Somali version of samosas — and broadcasts international soccer games.

Odawaay has watched this ad hoc village take root as more and more Somalis have moved to metro Denver — or, as he likes to put it, gotten stuck here. Some came to Colorado from other parts of the country for decent-paying warehouse positions at places like MCI or delivery gigs with the Rocky Mountain News, but those jobs don't exist anymore. Some came to work at the Swift meatpacking plant in Greeley, but as claims of discrimination against Muslims there triggered an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint, many of the immigrants headed south to try their luck in Denver.

According to Odawaay, they'll find few options beyond driving taxis. "I tell people, when you have a family to feed, when you have to have a job and you don't have language skills, you will end up driving a taxi," he says. "The taxi is something that is always available." That's why so many Denver taxi drivers are now immigrants from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan, and why an assortment of yellow, purple, blood-orange and green cabs are always parked along this strip of stores.

"We didn't choose these taxi jobs," Odawaay explains. "People pushed us into them."

People like the human-resources officials at area hospitals and medical offices who've never responded to the nearly three dozen job applications Odawaay submitted after spending a year obtaining his medical-assistant certification. People like the twenty potential employers who called a friend who'd used his Americanized nickname on his resumé — but then lost interest, says Odawaay, when they heard the man's full Somali name.

Unable to find other work, Odawaay drove a taxi from 2002 to 2009 — first for Yellow Cab, then for Union. And now he helps an unending stream of newcomers learn to do likewise, even if he doesn't like the work. "It's not a job," he says. "People need to know that it is the worst thing you could ever do."

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