–This post is written by UHP students Rauvin Johl and Keila Franks, who worked as research assistants with Professor Chacko.
More than 25% of DC’s 5,000 cab drivers hail from Ethiopia. Similarly, Ethiopians dominate the parking attendant industry in the city. With such a high incidence of Ethiopians in both industries, we set out to discover what factors motivate Ethiopian immigrants to enter into both fields and whether the prevalence of Ethiopians in these industries is a result of structural or cultural factors. Neither of us had extensive experience with qualitative interviewing, but we were both eager to get out into the field and give it a try. We were hoping that this research assistantship would help us learn how to conduct surveys and how to consolidate and analyze qualitative information. Keila was drawn to the topic of this research because of her interest in immigrant issues and her previous experience working with refugees and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa. Rauvin had a similar interest in the immigrant experience due to her family’s immigrant background.
We started with basic research, sifting through back issues of the Washington Post and conducting a literary review, but we soon delved into the qualitative research phase. We interviewed parking garage attendants in NW DC and cab drivers in Foggy Bottom and in the Georgetown area. Interviewing parking attendants was a relatively straightforward process. We would wander from parking garage to parking garage asking the attendants to participate in our survey, and we found that most Ethiopians were eager to help. Taxi drivers, however, were an entirely different story. After our first day of field research we realized that it was fairly difficult to convince the constantly in-motion cab drivers to stop and give us 15 minutes of their time. For them, time was money, and stopping to help us with our study wasn’t worth losing valuable fares. Fortunately, after a few weeks we had fine-tuned our system and became well-known within the community for borderline stalking cabbies as they idled along the Georgetown waterfront while waiting for customers.
Our interviews taught us that Ethiopian parking attendants are proud of their ability to deftly maneuver large cars into small spaces, and that their work provides them with the flexibility to pursue higher education. Talking with Ethiopian taxi drivers revealed that although many of them enter the taxi industry with the intention to leave, few do. Many of the Ethiopians that we interviewed were family-oriented people and said that they were working as parking garage attendants or taxi drivers so that their children could have a better future. Taxi drivers stated that the flexible hours of the job allowed them to be there for their kids, whether attending their sporting events or picking them up from school when they were sick. Many emphasized the importance of their children going to school, and they boasted proudly of their children’s academic achievements. One parking garage attendant stated that her 11-year old daughter wanted to go to GW and that she was working toward helping her daughter realize her dreams. This story and those like it made us realize the value of our education and our opportunities, blessings oft lost in the daily grind of schoolwork and college life.