Driving a cab: The African immigrant’s signature underemployment

Edwin Egbejimba is a college-educated immigrant from Nigeria who has been driving a cab for the past twelve years. This is his story.

The Nigerian immigrant wanted to get an education and a good job. He wanted to eventually buy a house and a car with his hard-earned money. And he looked forward to getting married and having children.

Many Americans hope to achieve some version of these six goals in their lifetime. They are, after all, perennial elements of the “American Dream.” Some view such accomplishments as a birthright, while others see it as the product of much labor and will power.

Edwin Egbejimba put in the time and had the will, yet he was only able to achieve two of his dreams: getting an education and having children. Everything in the middle, for some reason or another, didn’t work out as planned. He didn’t get the job he wanted, his lives in an apartment in Edgewater on the city’s north side rather than a suburban house, his car is the taxi he drives for the living, and he and his wife recently divorced. Egbejimba’s story is part of a much larger narrative, that of educated, yet underemployed, African immigrants and refugees living in Chicago.

According a study conducted by the United African Organization, a Chicago-based advocacy coalition, “Africans are the most educated immigrants in Illinois: 93.7 percent have high school diplomas and 53.2 percent have bachelor’s or graduate degrees.”

Despite its highly educated population, many members of the African community in Chicago express grave concern about the prevalence of overqualified immigrants taking entry-level, low-paying jobs, such as cab driving, often out of necessity.

Though the phenomenon of underemployment for African immigrants in Chicago is difficult to quantify, Egbejimba, a cab driver for 12 years, tellingly says, “To the best of my knowledge, all of the people I know that drive cabs are college-educated.”

After finishing secondary school in Nigeria, Egbejimba came to the United States to study psychology at Chicago State University. While attending CSU, he drove cabs on a part-time basis. Upon graduating, Egbejimba became discouraged when he couldn’t find a job relevant to his field of study. It was then that he switched his hours and became a full-time cab driver.

“I had to feed my family,” Egbejimba says. “Somehow, life had to move on.”

Suited and smiling, Alie Kabba, a Sierra Leonean immigrant, walks with the easy gait of a confident man through the hallway leading to his office. The executive director of the United African Organization, Kabba takes particular interest in the phenomenon of underemployment in the African immigrant and refugee community and oversees public policy work to empower these educated immigrants.

“We are talking about the crème de la crème of post-colonial African elites coming here,” Kabba says. “However, being black and an immigrant is a combination that sometimes consigns people to cab driving instead of [working] in the corporate world.”

Kabba’s South Side office is decorated with traditional African paintings, high back chairs upholstered in leather, flyers advertising Chicago to prospective immigrants, and a photograph of President Barack Obama. By his own standards, Kabba is not currently affected by underemployment, though he admits that he encountered some initial difficulty in finding work, even with college degrees from Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria.

“Employers never relate to a degree from the University of Ghana,” Kabba says.

Humming along to a song by The Doves, a Nigerian band, Egbejimba drives his yellow cab through Chicago with obvious ease and familiarity. “To [employers], no matter how highly educated you are, as long as you’re not from here, you don’t know what you’re doing,” he says.

According to the United African Organization’s 73-page report entitled “African Immigrants & Refugees in Illinois,” Africans are the fasting growing immigrant community in Illinois. More than 70 percent of African immigrants arrived between 1996 and 2008, while 83.5 percent of these immigrants are between 16 and 50 years old. As the study shows, the most pressing needs for African immigrants and refugees are “obtaining employment and accessing jobs with better pay and benefits.”

Unlike many African immigrants, Evan Mwangi says he did not experience much difficulty in joining the profession for which he trained. An assistant professor of English at Northwestern University, Mwangi graduated from the University of Nairobi with a Ph.D. in literature.

“The fact that I studied in Africa did not disadvantage me in any way,” Mwangi says. “If you are relocating from Africa to come here, especially as a professional, you should be ready to undergo training again.” Mwangi says he had to go through certification and additional training in the United States to attain his current professorial position.

The second floor of 4554 N. Broadway Ave., a central location for many African immigrants in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, is full of African churches, fabric stores and accounting firms. Near the end of the hallway, inside the inconspicuous office of the Sunlight African Community Center, Ruphina Pettis, executive director and founder of the non-profit, busily responds to emails on her computer.

“A lot of us have come here fully educated, with high degrees, and now we drive cabs,” Pettis says. “I don’t know what we can do to change it, but it’s there.”

According to its Web site, Sunlight was founded to “help the underserved African immigrant community gain access to resources and tools for empowerment.” Pettis says many of the fathers whose children are enrolled in Sunlight’s after-school program drive cabs for a living.

“Everywhere in the world, people look down on cab drivers,” Egbejimba says, making a left turn onto Sheridan Road. “If you are a black person here, you know that the odds are against you in getting a job. If you are a foreigner, it’s two sides against you.”

“I look in the eyes of African immigrants talking about their jobs in a way that really shows the depth of despair,” Kabba says, leaning in closer. “‘Yes, we have a job, but we could be doing more.’ It’s the feeling that you’re not enough of a person. It’s a society in which we have all the formal degrees and real training, but no opportunities.”

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