San Diego 'In late 1985, we fled Kabul and crossed from Afghanistan into Pakistan in the dead of winter. We walked ten days and nine nights. There were about 60 people in all. Friends, neighbors. Eight members of my immediate family. We walked through mountains, going from village to village. It was bitterly cold. I still have nightmares about that trip, about the cold. It's funny how something that happened so long ago can still give you bad dreams."
Driving west on Adams Avenue near the Texas Street bridge, Hamed Alemi stares straight ahead. He sees sunlight glint off the tops of tall palms. The blue, blue sky. He clears his throat and points downward at the driver's seat of his blue San Diego Cab.
"The minute I sit down in here, whatever I did yesterday or ten years ago, whatever it is I do before or after my shift, doesn't matter. I put it all aside. I put the past aside. I put my ego aside. I'm a taxi driver."
For the past 20 or so years, taxi driving has been the economic point-of-entry for hundreds of the city's best educated, or at least most ambitious, immigrants. As Barbara Lupro, who heads the Metropolitan Transit Development Board's taxi-administration office, explains, "Whenever there's trouble in the world, we feel it in this office. If there's trouble in Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq, Afghanistan, wherever it may be, we get an influx of license applications. Often, the applicants are well-educated, highly motivated people. Engineers. Academics. One gentleman from Iran had owned a factory and employed hundreds of people. They come to this country and their degrees are useless. They want to get ahead. And, if you think about it, taxi driving provides an excellent introduction to American life. You learn about economics and city government. It's sort of an advanced course in American civics and capitalism. You learn how the system works."
Before Alemi got a taste of the American system, he and his family spent 18 months in refugee camps in Pakistan. He and one of his four brothers found work with the Salvation Army, administering first-aid and teaching basic sanitation.
"In Kabul, my father was an attorney and worked for the census bureau. We belonged to the educated middle-class. We weren't wealthy, but we had enough to eat. In the refugee camps, we were among the few people who were literate. Simply being able to read and write was a tremendous advantage.
"We certainly never dreamed that we would end up in America. We were glad to get out of Afghanistan with our lives. So, we did the best we could. Then one day we got word of an uncle who had disappeared during the war with the Soviets. We had no idea where he was. A friend of his came to Pakistan and found us. My uncle, it turns out, had escaped and first gone to Greece, and from Greece to New York City, to Brooklyn. It was by chance that my uncle's friend found us.
"And so we went to Brooklyn, and we were there for only about two months. On the second or third day after we arrived, we went into Manhattan. It's hard to describe what a shock it was, having gone from Kabul to a refugee camp in Pakistan to, suddenly, New York City. It was an amazing thing. But we didn't have enough money, not even for a security deposit for an apartment in Brooklyn, so we went to Rochester, New York, where housing was much cheaper. The people there, especially our English-as-a-second-language teachers, were wonderful to us. They encouraged us. I was 16 years old and had basically finished high school in Afghanistan. My ESL teachers understood that I very badly wanted to go to college. They helped me. They gave me books to read. They helped me get into community college.
"My parents, however, were very homesick. It was difficult for them to be so far away from an Afghani community. A friend of ours encouraged us to come to San Diego, where there were more Afghanis. We made the move, to Clairemont. Five of us living together. I had to go to work. At first I washed dishes, worked in fast food. I got a job working for a credit union. First I worked as a teller, then I advanced until I was working with loans. A bank environment is a friendly one. You have to smile all the time. Smile at everyone. Some of the smiles are sincere, others aren't. I knew I didn't want to spend the rest of my life smiling at people. I wanted an education. But I was providing as much as 60 percent of my family's income.
"A friend of mine suggested I try working as a taxi driver. I decided to try it. I went down and passed all the tests and got my license. I started at Yellow Cab, which is where most immigrant drivers start. At that time, Yellow Cab charged only $70 to lease one of their cabs for a day. I started working on weekends, and I liked it. For an immigrant starting out in America, there's probably no better job. Where else could I work three to four days a week, 10 to 15 hours a day? Driving a taxi allowed me to work full-time and go to school full-time. Also, I was making almost twice as much as I was making as a loan officer at the credit union. Of course, I had to set everything else aside. I had no social life. I was either at work or I was at school or I was studying. When I was driving for Yellow Cab I even chose to work at the airport, which a lot of drivers don't like because you have to wait in line. But waiting in line gave me time to study."
Two years ago, Alemi switched to San Diego Cab, an Afghani-owned company with about 100 drivers, 60 of whom are, like Alemi, refugees from Afghanistan.
"I'm very proud to work for San Diego Cab. Akbar Majid, the owner, has done a lot for the Afghani community. I'm very proud of him. He's done very well, and he's built a good company. We have a lot of loyal customers, mostly in the beach communities. We're known for having the cleanest cabs, the politest drivers, the lowest rates. It's a good example of what we Afghanis are capable of. We've been in America for only a short time. We're a courageous, hard-working people. I'm proud that we kicked Russia's butt. Here in America, in five to ten years, you're going to see Afghanis in all walks of life. You're going to see a lot of Afghani businessmen like Akbar, a lot of Afghani doctors and lawyers and dentists.
"I just graduated from San Diego State with a degree in biology. After all these years of driving a cab and going to school, I've been accepted at the dentistry school at UCSF, which is one of the best dentistry schools in the country. Very strong on research. All those years of not having a social life have finally paid off. I'm married now. I have a one-year-old son, Imron. UCSF has helped us get into married-student housing. A two-bedroom apartment not far from the school for only $1000 a month. So, it's all worked out. You know, we work and study so hard for the second generation. That's why we do it. For our families."
As Alemi drives up Highway 15 toward Kearny Mesa, he talks about the celebrities who've ridden in his cab -- famous athletes, Governor Deukmejian, William Bennett. When I express surprise that he recognized Bennett on sight, Alemi laughs and waves a hand in the air.
"Of course, of course, I recognized him. I saw him on C-SPAN all the time. I love American politics. I've followed all the elections very carefully. I think I have a good understanding of both parties. I was very happy when Bush won in '88. At first, you know, the Republican Party seems very attractive to Muslim immigrants. The talk about the family, family values, responsibility, abortion. But if you pay close attention, it's all just talk. They say one thing and do another. Newt Gingrich. Bob Livingston. Very disappointing. I've been following Al Gore for years, and I'm definitely going to vote for him. I think he has the experience to be a good president."
Alemi pulls into an industrial park and stops in front a nondescript blue building. He gets out of the cab to stretch his legs.
"This is the Afghani Cultural Center. It also functions as a mosque. People come here for weddings, for funerals, on Fridays for prayer. They come here during Ramadan. I've been here so many times. It's nice to get together and talk."
From where he stands, Alemi can see the mountains to San Diego's east. It's very quiet in the industrial park. Alemi studies the mountains for awhile.
"Kabul is in the mountains, you know. High up. We're far away from open water. It used to be such a beautiful city. And outside Kabul, some of the villages were the most beautiful places you've ever seen in your life. People tell me that my family's village is abandoned. There's no one there to take care of it. I want to go back someday. I want to go back and do something to help my people. When I hear about my village, or when I think about what happened to Kabul, it makes me sad. But not so sad that I don't want to go back. The past is the past."