Meet Chicago Cabby Estaifan Shilaita

Estaifan Shilaita is not named in any tourist pamphlet I’ve seen for Chicago, he’s not listed as a highlight on any Chicago travel website.

But he is, by far, one of the best things that happened to me during my few days in the Windy City.

Chances are, if you’re in his cab right now, he’s told you to Google him.

That’s one of the first things he said to me when I got in his cab, looking to get from O’Hare to my hotel. “You’ve heard of ‘Dancing with the Stars?’ Well, now you are driving with a star! Here, I’ll prove it. You have a phone with Google? GOOGLE ME!

He spelled out his name very carefully: “E-S-T-A-I-F-A-N S-H-I-L-A-I-T-A. You see me? You see me there in Google?

And sure enough, his name came up – associated with a blog called Life of Brett and a documentary called The Champion.

Estaifan Shilaita with cab

{photo credit: Brett Garamella, production photos for The Champion}

See, I am a big star! I have a movie made for me! But no, you don’t read that now. Don’t read it! I will tell you my story.

But instead of telling me his story, he informed me that I’d need to guess his story. What’s this all about? I thought to myself. But Estaifan’s charm and enthusiasm were infectious, and I couldn’t help playing along with his pop quiz.

Soon I could tell that this spontaneous pop quiz wasn’t spontaneous at all – his clues were articulate, well-rehearsed, and clearly something he springs on all of his fares.

I will give you three clues to guess the story of where I come from. #1, Culture: My people used to rule all the world, now we have no home, no country, we are no more. #2, Religion: We were the first people to believe in Christ. #3, Language: At home and at church we speak Aramaic.

Writing it out makes the answer so much clearer now, but at the time, I was tired, not feeling well, and although amiable to playing along, felt clouded and at a loss.

{And, no, I won’t tell you the answer if you don’t know, because maybe you are in his cab right now, and you have Googled him, and you have found this post, and I don’t want to give his story away so easily.}

So I stammered around, asking for clarifications, telling Estaifan that I just didn’t know, when a sudden guess got him completely animated. “You are so close, so close! Okay, now, let me tell you more…

He fed me more clues that were surely meant to help, but only made me more confused. I kept telling him that I give up, I even put my hands up in mock surrender, all the while he continued to give me clues, define terms for me, give me quick lessons in history and geography.

Finally, an answer came crawling from a dark corner of my memory, and I correctly guessed his lineage, his people, his ancestry.

He was so pleased with me that I couldn’t help but smile from ear to ear.

Then it was my turn to ask him a question.

Okay, now tell me why you’re famous.

Turns out, Estaifan Shilaita was the Iraqi national boxing champion for several years in the 60’s and 70’s. He also played goalie for the nation’s soccer team. Though he was lauded by the Iraqi people and leaders for his skills, he could not and would not remain in such an oppressive, dangerous land. He fled, leaving his family behind.

He found his way to Greece, where he boxed for a time. In Greece, he applied to the Immigration office for a release to Sydney, Australia. But while in the Immigration office, he met a woman. He fell in love. She was leaving with her family for Chicago. “So,” he told me, “my plans changed.

He came to America for refuge. He’s been in Chicago for 32 years. He’s happily married, has four children (whom he boasted to me about with great pride), and drives his own cab. Cab #2259.

Two independent filmmakers somehow heard his story and decided to make a documentary. It’s called The Champion. Estaifan told me excitedly about a film festival it showed at, the interview he did with the Tribune, the radio stations he talked with about the project. He says they filmed with him for 3 days and sent him 2 hours of tape.


Since then, the documentary has garnered extensive praise, with an impressive list of film festival wins. Here’s the 2016 trailer for the film:

The Champion – Documentary short – Trailer from The Champion Film on Vimeo.

I want more people to meet Estaifan Shilaita.

He has a powerful spirit and a fierce love for this country. “I tell my kids all the time, you were born in a paradise. This is a paradise. America is a paradise. You don’t know how good it is.” He thanks God every day for being in America, for the opportunities his children have. “You just don’t know. You don’t know what it’s like in some parts of the world.

I ask him if he has other family in the US. He says yes, some cousins in Arizona. “Oh! Have you ever been to see them?

No,” he tells me. “Never.

Have you been anywhere else in the US?

No,” he answers. “Well, I’ve been to 2 other states. One time I took a man from the airport into Indiana. Another time I took a man from the airport into Wisconsin. But that’s all. I stay in Chicago 32 years. I love Chicago. Chicago is an amazing city. I work every day. I work for my family. I don’t take vacations. I don’t complain.

This leaves me stunned, especially since I am in Chicago for a somewhat frivolous getaway. I feel humbled by Estaifan’s happiness to simply be in America and be able to have his family, practice his faith, and work hard.

It’s enough for him. And he gives me the idea that it could be enough for me.

I leave the cab emotionally changed, and shake Estaifan’s hand eagerly before heading in to the hotel. Though I haven’t seen my husband in a week, I spend the first 15 minutes of conversation feverishly recounting my ride with Estaifan Shilaita.

I will never forget it.


  • Jennelsonlane

    What a cool experience!  I think that’s even better than the Cash Cab.

    • It’s so funny you say that, because at one point he said “See, this is MY Cash Cab!” He has a great sense of humor. I said if it was really like Cash Cab, I should be able to call a friend for the answer, but he only chuckled at me. It was such a neat experience. 🙂

  • Totally better than Cash Cab! This is such a fun & unique post topic, love it!

  • Sherry

    What a cool story!  🙂  And can I just say how neat it is that he met a woman in an immigration office and left for Chicago with her??!!

  • Christago

    I was lucky enough to be picked up by him yesterday in the early am. Fascinating guy! I had the exact same experience

    • Isn’t he wonderful! He didn’t have his medal with him at the time, but he kept telling me to call him when I needed to go back to the airport, and he’d pick me up and bring it then. Sadly, we made other arrangements for our transportation. Still, a great memory.

  • Marnie

    He took me to the airport last week, I’m finally reading his story…Great story, great man.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Marnie! I really wish more people knew his story. I keep watching for news of the documentary, but I think progress has stalled out for now. Still, it’s fun to connect with others who share the experience of having met him. He’s truly one of a kind!

  • Alicia

    Amazing story! Really hope this story goes viral and the documentary gets made. God bless estaifan.

  • Andy molnar

    Wow. I have got a history and geography lesson. I did not guess the origination of this star
    So I lost the bet and had to pay the fare to the airport. Andy UK

  • Kate

    i got out of his cab today a changed person, as well. He is amazing! I truly hope his story goes somewhere. If not, we’re some of the lucky ones to have had a chance to meet him and hear his story first hand!

  • John

    Just got out of his cab. What a great early Christmas present.

  • John P.

    Just got out of his cab.. truly the highlight of my day.. What a good man, very humble indeed. He has such a great story and has a great heart as well.. I wish him the best.. Great way to start the year.. 🙂

    • I love knowing that more than a year after I met him, he’s still sharing his unique story and perspective with his riders. Thanks for sharing!

  • Julie

    The best cab ride I have ever had. I couldn’t guess where he was from so he let me “phone a friend”! What an amazing story. He gave me his cell number to call if I needed him again. I’ll definitely call him. I want to hear more……!!

    • I’ve kept his cell number, too – even after all this time! Who knows when I’ll ever be in Chicago again, but when I am, I intend to give him a call!

  • Mparris27

    Riding in his cab as I write this! Such an interesting man with an incredible story!

    • Stacey Nerdin

      I really do love knowing that all this time after I met him, he’s still bringing such joy to people. Thanks for stopping by!

    • How fun to imagine you typing this comment as you were in the cab with Estaifan! Glad you got to have that very unique experience of meeting him!

  • Deepak Girdhar

    I had the opportunity to ride with him last year in March, it was great experience meeting him, he did played quiz with me too and as like others I wasnt able to answer his questions, since he told me that he was born in middle east, I thought he would defiantly like cashews which I was carrying with me and offered him later, This man is full of enthusiasm and passion toward his life goals, he is respectfully proud to be an American, his life story is great lesson to others who have been struggling & working hard day and night.

    • Stacey Nerdin

      Pretty unforgettable, isn’t he? Thanks for stopping by!

    • You’re exactly right Deepak – Estaifan really *is* a great example to the rest of us. Thanks for your comment!

  • Arleneflores1999

    What a wonderful story. We had a delightful conversation. Wishing you the best!

    San Antonio, Texas

    • Stacey Nerdin

      Thank you, Arlene! Glad you got to meet Estaifan for yourself!

    • Glad you got to enjoy that conversation with Estaifan – it’s a one of a kind experience. Thanks for the comment and well wishes!

  • Cmcolema

    Just took a ride in his cab tonight. Couldn’t help but laugh when you mentioned that he said google me because that is exactly what he just told me just a few hours ago. Very interesting guy, I really hope his documentary makes it. He is the definition of what makes this country great.

    • Did he spell his name out for you when he told you to search for him? He was very slow and specific with me… “E-S-T-A-I-F-A-N….”. Made me chuckle. Glad you got to meet him! Thanks for the comment!

  • Cathy Dorn

    Wow! Just got dropped off at Shaws Crab Shack by someone fanous!!! He was our cab driver tonight….super nice guy!!!!!

    • Glad you got to have that fun experience! He really is like a celebrity to me – just can’t wait until the rest of the world gets to “meet” him. 🙂

  • elileite

    Well… here we r my boyfriend and I from massachussets on our way to airport in chicago listening thisnice,unique cab…. its so nice to know fun people like him :))

  • NJ Longshoreman

    This was our first trip to Chicago and on our first cab ride we met Estaifan and what an amazing guy he is!! He gave us the 4 question quiz to see if we could guess where he is from. If we guessed it right our cab ride was for free! Unfortunately we guessed wrong but that was alright because he started to tell us his life story. All I can say is AMAZING! Hopefully if you’re ever in Chicago and hail a cab you get him!

    • That was my first trip to Chicago, and first cab, too – right out of the airport! And I got the same offer for a free ride, but alas, didn’t guess it in time. 🙂 I was happy to pay for the experience, though. Glad you got to meet him, too!

  • Just had such an intelligent conversation with my cabbie. Estaifan was a truly refreshing experience with a wonderful story.

    • “Refreshing” is a great way to put it – an experience totally out of the ordinary. Glad you got to meet Estaifan!

  • What a great guy! Had so much fun riding in his cab. Learned a lot too

  • lisa

    We just got out of his cab…what a beautiful man and inspirational story!!

    • I love that he is continuing to inspire people, even so long after I first met him. Glad you got to meet him, Lisa!

  • joe

    We met him too. Great story, great person.

  • Romain Tyrou

    cool story! we are in his cab right now! every detail in this story is true

  • Karen

    We had the distinct honor of meeting Estaifan while in Chicago and I do say that it was quite an experience. Estaifan told his story all the while smiling and happy and saying God Bless America many times. He is so grateful to be here & to give his children the opportunities that they would not have had in Iraq. He is a gentle, caring, sweet man who is happy with life and I’m thankful that we were able to spend time with him and hear his story straight from him. Thank you Estaifan for the wonderful human being that you are and for the enjoyable cab rides :o)
    Karen, Steven, Mary, Arlene & Sheila

  • D M

    Such a nice man to meet! In his cab right now?

  • Francine

    O know him some minuts before. A great person! Fran

  • Marco

    Just got out of his cab. I guessed it right! Such a great geniune guy, I hope I catch a ride with him again.