At the St. Louis airport, the Back 40 isn't part of a ranch. It's the nickname taxi drivers give to a big parking lot just up the road. There they wait for the call to go pick up a fare at the terminal. Spotless white vans sit bumper to bumper in long rows, while the cabbies mill around and talk, or play chess in a small shelter. Waiting can get a little boring. It wasn't hard to get four of them to talk about the ups and downs of making a living in a cab.
"Most of us are immigrants from Africa - Ethiopia, Nigeria and Somalia," says Joshua Osho. "Some Russians too."
"A lot of Ethiopians drive taxis, because that's our first chance to work when we get here," adds Malaku Tamir. "You can't go to school when you're as old as many of us are when we come. And you must earn something right away for your kids and family. The easy way is to drive a taxi."
When Tamir began at the airport 19 years ago, everyone worked for six companies. "Then the county opened the business and we organized the service and got permits. The old owners couldn't get any drivers and they left," he recalls. "Now more than 80% of the cabs are owned by drivers like me."
It was hard at the beginning, and the drivers had to get bank loans to buy their vans, or tap the resources of their families. Almost all say they're driving for their kids. Tamir has four, one in college and three more getting ready, so he has to come up with the money soon.
Mohammed Hussein has eight children, the largest family on the lot, and his hopes for them are high. "I want them to go to school. I don't want them to drive a taxi," he declares. "I want them to be in perfect shape, with a better life and a better education." He laughs. "But kids are very expensive to have in this country."
To support them, he drives 15-16 hours a day sometimes, more than most. Tamir drives 10 hours, five and a half days a week. He says that's about average. (story continues after slideshow)
All the drivers have a story about why they came to the U.S. Rufus Jewel left Nigeria at 37. "I dropped out of college because there we have no student loans," he remembers. "If you don't have any family to come up with your college fees there's no way you can keep going." He hopes his children will do what he couldn't, and go to college - even if the family has to get loans to help them.
Tamir came because of the civil war in Ethiopia. "Most educated Ethiopians are now living outside the country," he says. "There are a lot everywhere. If you go to DC, you see highly educated people driving taxis."
Hussein's experience leaving Mogadishu, Somalia, was the worst. "When the civil war started some of my family were massacred," he recounts in a somber voice. "I survived and left. This turned out to be my American Dream - driving a taxi."
Having worked so hard to get to St. Louis, most don't plan to go back. Hussein is different, though. His ambition is to be president of the country he left behind. It's not actually such a far-fetched notion. Several of Somalia's highest government officials in recent years, including a prime minister, spent many years living in the U.S. before returning.
"I want to take my kids back and show them the beautiful country I came from," he says wistfully. "I hope my kids will be engineers or ministers back home. I will take them educated kids and they will fix my country. They are Americans, and they aren't going to live there forever. They will come back here. I hope they'll have a double home - here and there. But the connection to Somalia will always exist for my family. Forever. We aren't going to abandon Africa."
Joshua Osho has fewer dreams about Africa. He's more concerned with finding a way to get a better life for drivers here. He already put his kids through college working in a cab, and now he and others have organized the Taxi Council at the airport. In the council cabbies advocate for each other, and make sure everyone does their job well. "The council makes sure we are operating within the requirements of the MTC and the airport," he explains. "We have an excellent relationship with the regulatory authorities."
He calls Americans "very loving and accommodating. They accept us for who we are." This is perhaps a surprising attitude in the era of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, but perceptions of racism and discrimination by Black immigrants from Africa can be different from those of African Americans.
Hussein also talks about his customers warmly, and recalls an incident in which he stopped a passenger from overpaying him, and then got a $250 check in the mail from him a few days later. "We are humble servants of the public," he emphasizes. "We are loyal to our customers. We will deliver them safely to their homes."
Jewel, however, worries that this job is becoming less sustainable for families. "It has been decent way to make a living for those of us who come from a Third World country," he observes. "When I started sixteen years ago the number of on-call cabs was limited at the airport. But now, with all this competition from limos and shuttles, it's very challenging. Now we've started feeling the effect of Uber. We're beginning to notice that we're getting fewer fares every day." Like taxi drivers in many airports, he says it's not a level playing field - that he and his friends have to pay fees to the airport, and obey regulations, that his competition doesn't.
Jewel wonders whether the public really understands his situation. "As a foreigner, I am now a good American," he argues. "We're doing the little we can do to help the economy. We go to the market and buy food with the income we make from fares. So they shouldn't make our American dream more difficult to achieve."
Hussein feels the same insecurity. "We are all struggling, but sometimes it feels threatening, like it's not going to be a permanent job," he worries. But looking beyond the situation of the drivers themselves, he also thinks about the images he sees in the newspaper, of people fleeing Africa, and now Syria.
Hussein hopes that cities like St. Louis will continue to welcome strangers, as it welcomed him and his family. "I hope people realize that refugees, when they come to this country, start at zero, scratch, from the bottom. I hope our voice will reach whoever can help us."
Photo: David Bacon