Profile: Khalil Kishawi, earning a Master’s at a taxi stand

‘Palestinian Profiles in America’ is a project committed to exploring and documenting the personal histories of Palestinian Americans from all walks of life. In order to best examine the Palestinian condition in the United States, it is absolutely necessary to share the stories of refugees, blue-collar workers, newlyweds, and anyone in between. To suggest a story or individual to be profiled, please use the contact form here.

Khalil Kishawi shares his personal history from when he first worked in Libyan oilfields to when he worked dayshifts as an accountant and nightshifts as a taxi driver.

Standing at the six-cornered intersection where Elston Avenue crosses Western and Diversey is a woman in her mid-30s patiently waiting to cross the street. But the virtually imperceptible way her eyes darted from car to car tell veteran taxi driver Khalil Kishawi she is actually trying to flag down a cab.

This ability to read pedestrians is a skill he had developed when he first began driving in the mid-1980s. Three decades and a combination of careers later, Khalil lets me in on some of his most personal experiences living far from his home in occupied Palestine.

Khalil Kishawi is one of nine siblings born to Abdelrahman and Mozayyann in the dense Remal neighborhood of Gaza City. Born just a year and a half after Israel’s unilateral declaration of independence in 1948, he watched Gaza’s landscape transform from colorful economic and cultural prosperity to the drab green of military fatigues surrounding the territory.

For the first seventeen years of his life, Khalil bore witness to the harsh realities of foreign occupation. Control of Gaza transferred from the British to the Egyptians and then to the Israelis. His prospects for a stable future seemed to slip away after each subsequent military operation so, in 1967, he left Gaza and joined three of his older siblings in Cairo.

Khalil graduated from Cairo University with a degree in commerce (equivalent to a Bachelor’s degree in accounting) four years later. Intending to become entirely self-sufficient and to help support his younger siblings back home in Gaza, he traveled to Libya to work for Esso, known today as the Exxon Oil Company in Brega. For just under a year, Khalil handled the oil terminal’s inventory and accounting. He would work for two weeks straight before taking a weeklong vacation outside of the industrial settlement and seaport.

Eventually, Khalil moved on to work as an accountant for Libya’s state television network. Himself being Palestinian, he felt particularly sensitive to the way the television network unabashedly colluded with the Libyan government in exploiting the Palestinian struggle for its own political advancement. When Muammar Gaddafi’s 1977 speech was met with a tremendously low turnout, he contacted Khalil’s managing director and demanded the network broadcast footage from an old and more lively rally in which he championed, among other things, the Palestinian cause.

No longer capable of tolerating the network’s attempts to deceive the public in the government’s favor, Khalil quickly resigned and left the country for the United Kingdom.

Khalil drives his taxi through Downtown Chicago searching for customers during his downtime.

Khalil works on accounting in the comfort of an office very much unlike the one in which he used to check inventory 38 years ago in Brega, Libya.

Khalil points to federal buildings and embassies in Downtown Chicago. During the 1970s, Khalil visited embassies regularly to obtain travel documents. His citizenship as a Palestinian was not recognized by the international community and this made it very difficult for him to travel.

While in London, Khalil visited the Egyptian Embassy to renew his Egyptian Laissez-Passer, a travel document that works much like a passport for individuals whose national citizenships aren’t internationally recognized. But because the Egyptian and Palestinian governments were on bad terms following Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the Embassy confiscated his documents and refused to renew or even return them.

Khalil managed to contact fourteen different Arab ambassadors and urged them to intervene on his behalf. It took months for the Egyptian Embassy to give in. Unfortunately, Khalil couldn’t avoid the consequences of petty politics. The Egyptians had restricted the validity of his travel documents to non-Arab countries only. In other words, Khalil, an Arab, was not allowed to travel to any Arab country. It was, by all means, Egypt’s idea of “payback”.

Forced to abandon any hope of returning to the Gaza Strip, he chose instead to apply for residency in England. But in a stroke of bad luck, the British Home Office lost his Laissez-Passer and all associated paperwork.

Nervous of the consequences of literally being paperless in a country far from a home he couldn’t return to, Khalil visited a third embassy — an American one two blocks from his workplace. He explained his situation and requested that he be granted citizenship. The Embassy refused.

“Don’t you champion human rights?” Khalil asked, but the Embassy stood firm in its decision.

Undeterred, Khalil returned to the Embassy every single day for just over four weeks. He asked the same question and was met with the same response until, one day, the Embassy suggested a liaison in Germany. Khalil found himself in Chicago in 1980, an American citizen of Palestinian descent.

His first five years in the United States were challenging as he jumped from one unsteady job to the next, oftentimes finding himself moving to cities further and further away from Chicago. He tapped into the small but growing Palestinian community and used the connections to land small jobs. One of his employers, a car dealership owner, happened to be one of Khalil’s neighbors in Gaza.

In 1985, Khalil began leasing a cab under Chicago’s Yellow Cab Company. It was a taxing job but it proved beneficial in two ways: first, the steady income gave him the financial security he to start a family, and second, the long waits in between customers gave him time to read, study, and review. In the early 1990s, he spent his time at cab stands studying for exams. He had been accepted to DePaul University’s Graduate School of Business.

Khalil recounts his experience chasing his travel documents.

To jog his memory, Khalil travels through the city, regularly pointing out locations that he used to live or work in during his first few years in America.

Khalil’s bookshelf holds many of the accounting and business textbooks he used when he was pursuing his Master’s in Accounting at DePaul University. The two on the left are the same books he studied from during breaks or while waiting at cab stands.

Just before he began his graduate coursework, Khalil’s cab and his soon-to-become public support for Palestinian rights attracted attention from the City of Chicago’s top offices.

Part of his lease agreement through Yellow required that he display a sticker that read “Support United Jewish Fund Telethon”, a pro-Israel advocacy campaign. The sticker would be positioned on a plastic divider just behind the driver’s head but Khalil, citing personal and political conflicts of interest, refused to display the sticker.

Feeling his First Amendment rights were being violated, Khalil purchased his own medallion and ended his lease with Yellow. No longer bound to lease agreements, he chose to adorn his cab’s rear bumper with three bumper stickers. One said “Stop the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, another said “The U.S. paid Israel $6.3 billion this yaer. Have you paid your share?” and the third said “Pray for Palestine”. The latter two set off a charge.

Normally, it takes three to six months for an individual complaint to reach a driver. But the complaints Khalil received for his support of Palestine were taken very seriously by Checker Cab, to whom he was newly affiliated, and the City of Chicago.

One evening, Khalil returned home to a sealed letter from the City calling him in for a meeting and an impromptu inspection that found nothing offensive or hostile about his bumper stickers. However, the Public Vehicle Operations Division still asked Khalil to remove them in accordance with a long-ignored city ordinance. Khalil, who by now had been given legal counsel through the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, once again refused to remove the stickers.

When a police officer pulled him over for the bumper stickers, Khalil told the officer he’d gladly take a ticket if the officer was also willing to ticket three thousand Yellow cabs also displaying political stickers. Stunned, the officer walked away.

The City’s intimidation tactic failed and eventually it was forced to enforce its ordinances indiscriminately. Yellow, whose public pro-Israel advocacy campaign never faced threat or complaint, removed its stickers one by one. Khalil, whose two pro-Palestine stickers faced heat from the City, held up his end of the deal and also removed his stickers.

Khalil received his Master’s in 1994 became a Certified Public Accountant two years later. His career took off when he was hired to work full-time in a prominent accounting firm. In 2010, he opened up his own office to give back to work more directly with the communities that have always pushed hard for him.

Still, he hasn’t been able to abandon the cab entirely. He works dayshifts in his office and nightshifts on his cab. In the office, he sets aside one computer monitor to stream live news coverage of Palestine. In the cab, he shares what he learns.

His discussions with passengers oftentimes transcend Palestine and focus instead on his background, much like this profile. Some find it hard to believe that he’s a professional businessman. Others shrug him off, choosing to identify him solely as a civil servant at the bottom of the social chain. No matter what the reaction, Khalil urges his customers to take a refined look at the world outside of the places where privilege and fortune is common. He draws on his experiences growing up in Palestine, working in North Africa, and struggling through Europe before building a home away from home in America. The stereotypes mean nothing to him.

One Saturday evening, after locking the front door to his office, Khalil takes his cab out to Downtown. Business is booming. He calls a colleague, a friend, and convinces him to leave the airport and make his way towards the city. He drives into the night — a blue-and-white-collar Palestinian worker striving to make the most of life in America.

Here is a sticker similar to the one Khalil placed on the rear bumper of his taxi in the early 1990s.

A placard for cab #2992 is positioned on a divider behind one of the seats.

A sampling of Khalil’s degrees and certifications hangs from his office wall, a testament to his emphasis on elevation through education.

In the driver’s seat of the cab he spends much of his time in, Khalil navigates his personal history and the unexpected twists and turns that have lead to him working as both a blue-collar and a white-collar worker.

Khalil prepares to begin his evening shift on the taxi cab.

Sami Kishawi

To suggest an individual or story to include in this project, please use the contact form here. All photographs are used with permission from the subject(s).


There are 4 comments

  1. lucybeckett35

    An inspiring story, well told and well written. I try to imagine a life even remotely as challenging as his, and I fear I would not have the perseverance to succeed and prosper, as he has. I wish him continued success and good fortune. Peace. Salaam. Shalom.

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