Airport Cabdrivers Feel War in Hearts, Wallets

Times Staff Writer

Outside John Wayne Airport -- far from New York, where world leaders debate war -- a United Nations of another sort meets every day, rain or shine, to pass judgment on world affairs.

The taxi drivers here, from countries halfway across the world, have found common ground. There's a guy from Ghana, another from Jordan. More than a dozen from India and Iran. There's even a cabbie delegation from Afghanistan, including one member who says he's the president's cousin.

Like the diplomats in New York, these men are divided. Some favor war, others are opposed. Some are simply resigned to it. "If it happens, it happens," said Tony Belmiri, an Iranian immigrant.

Many have witnessed war firsthand. Those who haven't still feel their lives -- and their livelihoods -- tied to it. War will mean less income in an already slow travel market.

"People heard '48 hours,' " said Nasir Karzai, 45, of Irvine. "Nobody's flying."

So with time to pass as they wait for their next fares, they abandon the spotless yellow cabs for lawn chairs and pass the hours talking about war and world politics.

Farhad Solati sweeps his arm across the parking lot, motioning to men seated in small clusters, arranged by nationality.

"This," the Iranian immigrant said, "is the international zone."

The group of unlikely pals form an odd alliance -- bonded by their immigrant experiences. It matters little that at one time some of their home countries fought each other. Now they are united by common worries: how to pay rent and the weekly lease on their cabs, and whether there will be future terrorist attacks on the U.S. They also worry for their own safety because most have been subjected to suspicious glances from fearful travelers.

To combat that, many sport patriotic red, white and blue ties, hang small American flags from their rear-view mirrors and affix flag stickers to their cab exteriors.

In the days following Sept. 11, 2001, some passersby honked, cursed and shouted at the cabdrivers gathered in the small parking lot at Campus Drive and MacArthur Boulevard, said driver Nabeel Sunna of Westminster. The Jordanian immigrant hopes the incidents are not repeated if the U.S. bombs Iraq.

People don't understand that "a lot of these guys, they ran away from the Middle East because they don't want to live there," Sunna said.

Belmiri, 48, fled Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war.

"I didn't want to stay there because of that," he said. "The bombs were 10 miles away, but we could still hear it, just a huge noise. Everybody laid down, crying and screaming: 'I'm OK! Are you OK?' "

In India during 1965, Manjid Singh was a 7-year-old when his country went to war with Pakistan. He couldn't go outside to play. His parents kept the house dark. And it seemed as if the windows shook constantly from bomb tremors that lasted for days.

"We don't like war," Singh said. "Innocent people die in war. Win or lose, war is bad for everybody."

In this small window on the world, they have varied opinions. The handful of Afghan cabdrivers fear loss of innocent life. They also fear that the United States and United Nations will divert all their attention to Iraq, abandoning for a second time their war-torn country, which needs more aid, financial and humanitarian.

Sunna is scared for his brother and sister should Saddam Hussein decide to use chemical weapons. They live in Jordan, the country bordering Iraq to the west.

Anil Rawal started work at 9:45 a.m. Tuesday. By midday, he had picked up one fare for a short $12 trip. "Cab driving is the only source of livelihood for me," said Rawal, an immigrant from India.

If war lasts weeks or months, he says, his income will suffer. Despite those concerns, Rawal said, he listened to President Bush's speech on the radio and supports him.

"Saddam Hussein is an evil person who must go," Rawal said. "He's a tyrant. He should be dethroned so Iraqi people can live in safety and not be oppressed."

Many of the cabdrivers gathered around a radio Monday to listen as Bush addressed the nation. When war strikes, they expect to be tuned to their radios again. They know this because they will be sitting on their lawn chairs, waiting for work.

"I have no room to think about those kinds of things. I just worry about working," said Jay Lee, 57, who emigrated from South Korea eight years ago. He looks out at the parking lot, filled with empty cabs, Super Shuttles and bored taxi drivers."It's much slower than before 9/11, and recently it's getting slower. This is a real-life war for us, an everyday war."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World