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St. Cloud Somalis turned away from taxi driving jobs
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Abdikarim Yusef and Mohamoud Mohamed say they know many Somalis in St. Cloud who have been turned away from taxi driving jobs. Mohamed's own application for a taxi driving job was denied. (MPR Photo/Annie Baxter)
For 30 years, St. Cloud has had an ordinance on its books that forbids immigrants from driving taxis. It wasn't enforced; in fact, most people had forgotten about it. City officials were embarrassed to learn of the ordinance recently, and promptly swore they'd get rid of it. The matter is under consideration in the City Council. But even so, Somalis say they can't get jobs as taxi drivers, and they're wondering why.

St. Cloud, Minn. — If anyone was born to drive taxis, it was Mohamoud Mohamed. He's a neatly dressed man with a goatee and wire-rimmed glasses. Over a coffee at a popular Somali hangout in St. Cloud, he speaks of his "calling" to the profession.

"My father has several taxis in my country, in Somalia," Mohamed explains. " I grew up in that small taxi company. I have long experience of driving taxi and map reading."

There are some people who claim that third world drivers are the worst thing that ever happened to the business. But that's not true.
- Mike Kedrowski, Minneapolis Yellow Taxi

Mohamed drove taxis while he attended a university in Mogadishu. He went on to work as an accountant at one of the largest sugar cane companies in Africa. When war broke out in Somalia, Mohamed fled to Minnesota. He eventually began his current work as a liaison to Somali refugees.

And that work has put him back in the driver's seat. He transports refugees to job interviews and to doctor appointments, and he helps them find housing.

Mohamed says his car's odometer is revealing.

"I have a car which I bought with less than 90,000 miles," he says. "And it has 250,000 miles today. All those miles I drove in central Minnesota."

But all his driving experience didn't seem to impress St. Cloud's Yellow Cab company. Mohamed applied there for a job to make some extra money. He says he followed up on his application several times. Eventually he was told it just wasn't a good time to hire him.

He says the hiring manager didn't invoke any city ordinances, like the one forbidding immigrants from driving taxis.

"I cannot say why I couldn't get it," he asserts. "I can read the map, I can challenge to show that I know as much as the people who are born here. But they did not give me that chance."

As Mohamed tells his story, a few young Somali men wave to him from across the café. They come over to say hello. Abdikarim Yusef is among them. He's new to town. He says he's already familiar with this business about taxi driving.

"Four of my friends they came here to drive a taxi, but they couldn't get in," he says. "So they are all driving taxis in Chicago."

When asked if he thinks driving in St. Cloud could be harder than driving in Chicago, he laughs.

"I don't think so," he says with a chuckle. "I've been here for three weeks, and I can go pretty much everywhere."

But Dale Victor of Yellow Cab in St. Cloud has a different perspective.

"I have driven taxi on occasion," he says. "And I've lived here all my life. You'd be amazed how many places you don't know where they are."

Victor says he expects his 60 or so drivers to provide top notch customer service. And he says immigrants don't know the town well enough to provide that kind of service.

"A lot of our customer base is the transient population," he explains. "And they don't know where anything is, so the taxi driver needs to get them where they're going. They really need to be helpful."

It's a different story at Yellow Taxi in Minneapolis. Manager Mike Kedrowski says roughly 60 percent of his drivers hail from Africa.

"There are some people who claim that Third World drivers are the worst thing that ever happened to the business," he claims. "But that's not true."

Kedrowski says some Twin Cities cab companies worry customers will complain about immigrant drivers, simply on the basis of race.

In St. Cloud, the community is still getting used to the relatively new presence of about 3,000 Somali immigrants.

Mohammud Mohammed says that means it's hard for Somalis to get jobs not only as taxi drivers.

"Construction work they cannot go near," he says. "Restaurants, they are not hiring, too. I cannot tell you the reason. The Somalis are trying, but when they complete the applications they aren't getting any answer."

For now, Somalis in St. Cloud are stuck working at a handful of jobs that welcome them. But Mohamoud Mohamed says they'll keep knocking on doors, in search of more job opportunities.

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