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.

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