Boston Uber Drivers: Common Threads in the Immigrant Experience
Immigrants in America have a multitude of life experiences that have shaped who they are and how they got here. Although they come from many different walks of life, there’s much more that unites immigrants than separates them. Every immigrant’s story divulges much about not just who they are, but about who we are as a nation. One industry in particular serves as an excellent place to explore this topic: the ride sharing industry. Over the past six months, I conducted interviews with ten Uber drivers in Boston in order to learn more about the immigrant experience in Boston and America as a whole. The most prominent issues facing the drivers I interviewed were difficulty of finding suitable work, adapting to a new culture, and being separated from family.
Boston now counts itself as a rather diverse city with a large immigrant population. In 1950, 95% of Bostonians were white and native-born. Consequently, the city earned a reputation as one of the whitest cities in America, as events like the Boston Busing Crisis in the 1970’s highlighted its struggles with changes in its racial identity. Today, the Department of Homeland Security’s statistics list 81,421 lawful immigrants moving to the Greater Boston area from 2015-2017. 91% of Boston’s population growth from 1990-2017 can be accounted for by international immigration, while 19% of the Greater Boston area is now foreign born. This explosion in the immigrant community in Boston is a dramatic change to its identity.
Surprisingly, little data exists on the demographics of Uber drivers in America. According to a Statista study in 2018, 52% of rideshare drivers are nonwhite and 86% are males. However, it appears that the vast majority of Uber drivers in the Boston area are immigrants, new and old. I begin my interviews by greeting my Uber driver as soon as I enter the car. After some brief small talk about the weather, I always try to sound innocently curious when I ask my next question--”Where are you from?” The answers I get are not usually New England towns or cities. My ten interviews yielded drivers from five continents and nine different countries. In fact, just one of the drivers I interviewed was a native-born American, hailing from Salem, Massachusetts. Rideshare driving is an enticing profession for immigrants for many reasons, such as the little prior experience needed and flexible hours. Despite the presence of an extensive public transportation system in the Greater Boston area, ridesharing services continue to grow in popularity. According to a 2018 report released by the Massachusetts state government, more than 42 million rides began in Boston in 2018, a 21% increase from the year prior. Services like Uber and Lyft have become an integral part of the city for both the drivers and riders.
One common theme that emerged throughout the course of my interviews was the difficulty of finding work in Boston. Many immigrants who come to America are highly skilled in their field back home. Edward, an immigrant from North Sudan, came to America in 2002 with a college degree in computer science and experience working for several small businesses. He struggled to find an employer willing to hire him, despite applying to many companies in the Greater Boston area. He has since been working in several fields, including as a community organizer for homeless shelters. He noted that driving for Uber part-time earns him nearly as much money per week as his full-time work in the technology field back home. His new line of work has given him direct involvement with the Boston community, and he has found Boston to be a very welcoming city to immigrants.
Another driver named Kuddusi, from Turkey, received a college degree in engineering and worked as a factory manager in Turkey. However, he found limited prospects to use his degree or managerial experience in America, so he decided to become a rideshare driver for the flexibility it offered him and his family. There exists a perception that immigrants who come to America are working in low-skilled positions because they do not possess experience or skills that they could apply to other fields. This perception misses the mark. Many immigrants, such as Edward and Kuddusi, come to America with college degrees and sufficient work experience in their relevant field. They struggle to secure similar jobs for numerous reasons, such as the lack of professional connections and deflated value of their degrees from foreign institutions. These people would often be happy to apply their knowledge and continue to work in a field in which they have experience rather than accept a job at a lower-level. Ricardo, a driver from the Dominican Republic, even remarked that he once met a janitor who was an elected judge in her native country. It takes an immense amount of sacrifice to go from hearing legal cases to cleaning facilities. This underscores the gap that exists in the level of jobs immigrants take in America versus the jobs they had in their home countries. Jobs in lower-level positions are often not the first choice for many immigrants, but they’re the only choice.
Another shared experience for many immigrants in the Boston area is difficulties adapting to a new culture. The American way of life is much different than the lifestyles most immigrants are used to in their native countries. Furthermore, the city of Boston itself has its own culture and unique characteristics. Ahmad, a driver from Syria, arrived in America in 1988 knowing no English with only $1,000 in his pocket. He recalled the dirty looks he got from strangers as he went through the process of figuring out what is and is not acceptable to do and say in public. In America, it is common to be polite to a stranger and say “thank you” if he/she holds the door open for you and to make some small talk with your neighbor in the elevator. However, some cultures cut to the chase and assume a stranger is your friend and your neighbor is your family. Ahmad, used to treating his neighbors like family members in his home village, felt discouraged when his apartment neighbors did not reciprocate his friendliness and invitations to dine with him as is common in Syria. Eventually, he settled in and learned how to be his usual gregarious self without getting in other peoples’ business.
The process of adapting to a new culture often places immigrants in situations where they are publicly mocked or ridiculed. Abraham, from South Sudan, explains that family values in his village in his homeland differ from family values in America. Back home, he said it is quite normal for family members to show physical displays of affection that may be uncommon in America, such as holding hands while walking with large groups of family members. On one occasion, a group of men yelled homophobic slurs at and threatened him while he held hands with his cousins on a walk in the city. Abraham felt shocked and confused that he had to suddenly change the way he acts in public around his family for fear of once again being berated with homophobic slurs or physically attacked. Much of the process of adapting to a new culture comes with experience, so it sometimes takes very uncomfortable and negative experiences for immigrants to learn about their new culture.
Finally, a common experience shared by nearly every driver I interviewed was being separated from family. Jeanmarie, an immigrant from Haiti, has encountered a particularly difficult time being away from his family. He came to America in 2016, leaving his brother, sister, and parents back home. His family describes the current political situation in Haiti as a hopeless one. Rampant government corruption and instability has plagued an economy that has still not fully recovered from the earthquake that devastated the nation in 2011. Jeanmarie discussed the struggles of even communicating with his family due to frequent power outages and phone companies unfairly surcharging its customers. Due to this, he is only able to speak to them once every three or four days. “This could be the worst and [most] painful thing ever,” he later told me via WhatsApp. He notes that sending them money is one of the only ways he is able to help them through their difficulties, yet it still hurts all the same. Jeanmarie yearns for the day he can see his siblings next to him in America, but doubts that will ever happen due to the increasingly difficult process of obtaining a U.S visa.
Immigrants in America are often trapped between two worlds. They are stuck in between their own new and daunting world and the world of their family and loved ones they leave behind. They seek a better life for themselves here but still can’t forget about the living situations of the people they came to America for. Even monetary support sent to family back home still can’t fully alleviate the pain of seeing family in their home country struggle. Although he remains agonizingly separated from his family, Jeanmarie has come to enjoy being a part of the Boston community. He likes learning new things as he adapts to the unique culture of the city, and he feels that he is able to help people in his own way as an Uber driver.
Ahmad defined the American Dream as a “big car, big house, and beautiful ladies.” He said he’s still waiting on the big car. Learning that your entire academic career means nothing in a new country can be demoralizing. Adapting to major cultural and language differences in a new country is far from easy. Leaving family and friends, some of whom are left behind forever, is traumatizing. Against those obstacles, Ahmad has made a life for himself in America and has come to fall in love with Boston. His experience in architecture in Syria gives him an appreciation and affinity for the architecturally rich city. He observed that seeing numerous historic and traditional buildings so well integrated into a modern city reminds him of his homeland. It is remarkable that someone who came here with minimal language skills, little money, and no personal or professional connections found a successful life for himself and his family in Boston. I hope he soon gets that big car.
Pursuing the American Dream is one of the cornerstones of coming to America. The American Dream is the bedrock that makes this a nation of opportunity for all, native-born citizens and foreign-born immigrants alike. The American Dream certainly has imperfections, and most who seek it quickly discover the hardships and struggles it entails. Yet they also learn to overcome these hardships and build a successful life for themselves. Ahmad, Edward, Kuddusi, Ricardo, Abraham, Jeanmarie, and the other drivers I interviewed came to America simply to find a better life for them and their families, the pursuit of happiness. Above all, this is the common thread that weaves the rich narratives of immigrants in this country into a book of stories that reveals what unites them, and what unites all of us as Americans.