Engineer Turned Cabbie Helps New Refugees Find Their Way : Goats and Soda Omar Shekhey left engineering to start a nonprofit that helps refugees navigate their new lives near Atlanta. He also drives a cab — and often gives the money to families to help them settle in.
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Engineer Turned Cabbie Helps New Refugees Find Their Way

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Engineer Turned Cabbie Helps New Refugees Find Their Way

Engineer Turned Cabbie Helps New Refugees Find Their Way

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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.

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