Chicago Cab Drivers Chase the American Dream

Story, photos and video by Morgan Ottier, Kara Schawk and Mary Beth Weissmueller

There are 2.7 million people in the Chicago metropolitan area. In a city of this size, it is often easy for people to overlook the stories behind the faces they only have short encounters with each day – including Chicago cab drivers.

Over the course of one night, ChicagoStorytelling’s team traveled five miles in three taxis and learned the stories of three immigrants driving those cabs … and their chase for the “American Dream.”

The Lucky One

Syed came to the United States 10 years ago after escaping a troubled life in India. Syed has been a taxi cab driver in Chicago for four years now, and he believes he came to the United States “by luck.” While Syed has met many different people working as a taxi driver, not many know his true story.

Before arriving in the United States, Syed lived a life filled with danger and violence. He was a former member of a gang in India that caused trouble not only for himself, but his family as well.

“While I was there I could not do anything for them. I could not make money, and I was trouble for them all the time,” said Syed. “At least they are safe from me now.”

The Lone Traveler

First it was New York, then New Jersey, Philadelphia and now, Chicago. Nawaz Shifaz’s travels have been somewhat nomadic since he left Sri Lanka nine years ago.

“Chicago, I have a good opportunity here,” said Shifaz. “Midwest people, they are very friendly and very polite.”

Shifaz settled in Chicago about seven years ago and he stays mostly because he enjoys the community.

Even though he resides in Chicago, his family remains in Sri Lanka. Shifaz only gets to see them about every seven months when he travels there.

“I [got] married four years back,” Shifaz said. “So I’m waiting for my wife and my kids to come and join me here in Chicago.”

Shifaz visits Sri Lanka for a few months at a time, but he doesn’t work while he’s there in order to spend as much time with his children as possible.

“It’s tough being away from the family,” Shifaz said.

Even though the cab company Shifaz works for is down about 40 percent in revenue because of the current economic conditions, he remains hopeful for his family’s sake.

“When they come here, I have some money to do some business or something like that … anything,” he said.

A Troubled Destiny

Rado moved to Chicago from Bosnia. When he first arrived, a friend of Rado’s was working as a cab driver and suggested that Rado get into the business as well. Now, years later, Rado continues to drive his taxicab to support himself and his family.

The current recession has however had a major impact on Rado’s business.

“Right now, business is nothing,” said Rado. “It’s very hard to make living from this.”

Cab Ride Map: Follow the five-mile route on this map. Use the zoom button to find the specific streets and switch to Satellite (Sat) mode to see the city and the streets.

In a study conducted by the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations the average gross annual income of a Chicago cab driver is reported as $54,732.92. However, when calculating in the upkeep and expenses to run a cab service the study found that the net annual income of a Chicago cab driver drops to $12,320.95

What stories can you find? Take the five-mile challenge, and tell us about the interesting people you encounter in your community by joining and posting to our  5-mile challenge Facebook page.

Editor’s note: Two of the three drivers interviewed requested that only their first names be used in the story.

2 responses to “Chicago Cab Drivers Chase the American Dream

  1. Loved the documentary. I ran across it on Twitter and have linked to your project from our site:

  2. I really enjoyed this. You all did a wonderful job. Very eye-opening and touching. I’ll definitely pass this along to people I know.

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