Engineer Turned Cabbie Helps New Refugees Find Their Way | KERA News

Engineer Turned Cabbie Helps New Refugees Find Their Way

Apr 1, 2015
Originally published on April 7, 2015 10:55 am

This story is part of an occasional series about individuals who don't have much money or power but do have a big impact on their communities.

Almost 70,000 refugees — victims of war, hardship and persecution — are allowed into the U.S. each year. But settling into their new homes can be a challenge, from learning English to figuring out how to turn on the dishwasher.

Omar Shekhey says he's there to help. The Somali-American drives a cab at night, but during the day, he runs the nonprofit Somali American Community Center, based in Clarkston, Ga.

Clarkston, a small town outside of Atlanta, is sometimes called the "Ellis Island of the South." Several thousand refugees live there, resettled by the U.S. government from Somalia, Burma, Bhutan, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo and other hot spots around the world.

Shekhey and his small staff pick up where the resettlement agencies leave off, he says, helping refugees feel at home. "We are like soldiers. We go do whatever's needed. No time sheets, no nothing. Just go."

And Shekhey, 55, seems to go nonstop, taking phone calls about potential jobs for refugees, helping people with government forms or organizing a community dinner between refugees and local Jewish teens. There's a steady stream of people seeking help at the center, a small office tucked in a strip mall with shops like Al Muhajaba Clothing Store and Halal Pizza and Cafe.

When he's not behind his desk, Shekhey is behind the steering wheel of his taxicab. He drives the yellow minivan at night and on weekends to earn extra money, which he often gives to refugees to help them with food, clothing or paying a bill.

During the day, he uses the cab almost like a company car. He ferries about refugees who have no other transportation, or picks up a boy from school to help out his working mother. Shekhey also makes frequent house calls, checking up on refugee families to see if they need any help.

Shekhey says many of the refugees are single mothers. Their husbands were killed in wars or other violence. Most of the families spent years, even decades, in refugee camps before coming to America and have lost everything. Shekhey says they're now trying to build new lives, working at nearby chicken-processing plants and factories.

"It's a tough life, but at the end of day they are better off [than] where they were," he says. "They were in a camp where they didn't have [a] future for their kids. So, this is the American dream. You have to work for everything, and communities have to help each other. That's the way we build dreams."

Shekhey's dream was to be an engineer. He came to the U.S. from Somalia in the early 1980s to earn a degree at Georgia Tech. He then became a U.S. citizen. But when the Somali civil war broke out in the 1990s, his focus changed, he says, and he brought his parents to the United States to live with him.

His mother told him that she and his father were terrified every time he left the house, because they were helpless without him.

"That kind of touched me," he says. "I knew that there were families like mine who didn't have a son like me."

So Shekhey gave up his engineering career and started the community center. First he used up all his savings; now he gets some government grants.

"Omar and his staff and what they've accomplished is just very inspiring," says Lexie Linger, community engagement coordinator at New American Pathways, a nonprofit refugee resettlement agency in Georgia.

Linger says groups like hers rely on people like Shekhey to help refugees integrate into the community. Sometimes refugees prefer getting help from someone who speaks their language or knows firsthand how difficult it can be to feel at home in a new country, she says.

Shekhey is a tall, gentle man, who often seems to be on the edge of exhaustion. He says many of the refugees get discouraged. Some think that he should just be writing checks to them from the grants he receives, he says. He has to explain that's not how things work in America.

The biggest obstacle refugees face isn't language or poverty, he says, but their own unrealistic expectations. "Expectation that America is a perfect nation," he says. "But ... it's not heaven. It's a [bumpy] road. Everything, you have to work for it."

Shekhey sees it as his job to help them over the bumps.

Every day, Shekhey picks up refugee children at their apartments to take them to the center's after-school program. At one stop, a worried-looking father approaches the taxi with some papers in his hand; people are constantly stopping Shekhey to ask for help.

The man speaks Somali and is confused by a letter he just received. Shekhey explains that it's about food stamps, and that the government needs more information or the family's benefits will be cut off.

Shekhey says it's the adults who have the hardest time adjusting, not the kids. The children in his cab arrived from Africa less than a year ago. The little girls wear brightly colored head scarves, or hijabs. One boy has plastic sandals on, even though it's freezing outside. But when they start singing "Let It Go" from the Disney movie Frozen, they sound like kids in the backseat of any American car.

Shekhey says he's very proud of these kids. He and his staff will spend the next two hours helping them with their English-language homework, something their parents aren't able to do.

"This is beautiful. This is what it's all about. Helping these kids," says Shekhey. "They're going to finish high school before you know it."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's keep on meeting people who are doing more with less. We've been tracking people who make a big impact, even if they are not rich or powerful. This story zooms in on a taxi driver in Atlanta. He is an immigrant, a Somali American, and he does much more than drive a taxi. He pays attention to some of the almost 70,000 refugees allowed into the United States each year. They're victims of war, hardship and persecution. When they reach the U.S., they face challenges from learning English to figuring out how to turn on a dishwasher. And that's where the taxi driver comes in. He spoke with NPR's Pam Fessler.

OMAR SHEKHEY: OK, the J.C. Penney need also people. So you want the Men's Warehouse and J.C. Penney? OK.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: It's a typical day for 55-year-old Omar Shekhey - finding jobs for refugees, cutting through red tape.

MEDINA: He got summoned to do jury duty, but...

SHEKHEY: He doesn't qualify. Call them and tell them he's not U.S. citizen.

FESSLER: Organizing a community dinner...

SHEKHEY: Medina, anyway, you prepare rice...

MEDINA: Mhm.

SHEKHEY: ...Chicken...

MEDINA: Mhm.

SHEKHEY: ...For like 50 people.

FESSLER: Life is hectic for Shekhey. He runs the Somali American Community Center in Clarkston, Ga., sometimes called the Ellis Island of the South. The center's in a strip mall alongside shops like Halal Pizza and Wings and now Muhajaba Clothing. This town is filled with refugees brought here by the U.S. government from Somalia, Bhutan, Burma and elsewhere. Shekhey says he and his small staff pick up where the resettlement agencies leave off.

SHEKHEY: We are like soldiers. We go do whatever's needed. No timesheet, no nothing - just go.

FESSLER: And he goes in a yellow taxi minivan.

SHEKHEY: My taxi that I drive at night.

FESSLER: Shekhey drives the cab on weekends and at night to earn extra money, which he often gives to refugees for food and clothes. During the day, he ferries about those who have no other transportation or picks up a boy from school because his mother's working and has no one else to help.

SHEKHEY: Hey Mikaso.

MIKASO: Hi.

SHEKHEY: How are you?

MIKASO: Good.

SHEKHEY: You had a good day?

MIKASO: Yeah.

SHEKHEY: This is my friend.

FESSLER: Many refugees here are single mothers. Their husbands were killed in war or other violence. Shekhey says most of the families spent years in refugee camps and lost everything. They're now here trying to build new lives with jobs at nearby chicken processing plants and factories.

SHEKHEY: It's tough life. But at the end of the day, they are better off where they were. They were in a camp where they didn't have future for their kids. So this is the American dream. You have to work for everything. And communities have to help each other. That's the way we build dreams.

FESSLER: His dream was to be an engineer. Shekhey came to the U.S. to study, then became a citizen. But when the Somali Civil War broke out in the 1990s, his focus changed. He brought his parents here to live with him. And his mother told him that she and his father were terrified every time he left the house because without him, they were helpless.

SHEKHEY: That kind of touched me. So I knew that there are families like mine who didn't have, you know, a son like me.

FESSLER: So Shekhey gave up engineering and started the center with his own money. He now gets some government grants. Lexie Linger is with New American Pathways, a resettlement agency in Georgia.

LEXIE LINGER: Omar and his staff and what they've accomplished is just very inspiring.

FESSLER: She says groups like hers rely on people like Shekhey to help refugees integrate into communities where they might not always feel welcome, that he knows firsthand what they're going through.

SHEKHEY: I am calling on behalf of Habib Abrahim.

FESSLER: Shekhey is a tall, gentle man, who often seems to be on the edge of exhaustion. He says many refugees here get discouraged - that the biggest obstacle they face is their own unrealistic expectations.

SHEKHEY: Expectation that America is a perfect nation. But it's just - it's not heaven. It's a bumping road. Everything - you have to work for it.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: It's snowing today.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Yeah, it is snowing.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: I know. I know.

FESSLER: So he tries to help them over the bumps. Every day, Shekhey picks up refugee children from their apartments to take them to an after-school program. At one stop, a worried-looking father approaches the taxi with some papers in his hand.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

SHEKHEY: It's OK. It's OK.

FESSLER: The man's confused by a letter he just received. Shekhey tells him it's about food stamps. The government needs more information or the family's benefits will be cut off.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

FESSLER: Shekhey says it's the adults who have the hardest time adjusting. The kids - not so much. Those in this van arrived from Africa less than a year ago. The little girls wear brightly colored headscarves. One boy has plastic sandals on, even though it's freezing out. But they all know the words to this popular Disney movie song.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: I'm free. Let it go, let it go.

FESSLER: Shekhey beams. He and his staff will spend the next two hours helping these kids with their English language homework - something their parents can't do.

SHEKHEY: This is beautiful. This is what it's all about - helping these kids. They're going to finish high school before you know it, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Thank you for coming.

SHEKHEY: That was nice, guys.

FESSLER: Pam Fessler, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.