Immigrants in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta: A cab ride with Lincoln
As immigrants a
cross the country wonder what a future in the United States will look like under an administration seeking to bar their entry, KYUK Public Media is taking a look at some of our neighbors in Western Alaska who have immigrated here.
In Bethel, there is a small community of a hundred people or so who have come to Alaska from various Eastern European countries and are colloquially and collectively known as “Albanians.” They came to Bethel for many reasons: economic opportunity, family and to escape war and persecution. We start our series about local immigrants by talking with one of them. This episode is entitled: “A cab ride with Lincoln.”
In every town, every city and every state in the U.S. there are immigrants. We are a nation of immigrants, and research has shown that even our indigenous peoples migrated in from somewhere.
Many less recent immigrants might have only a vague idea how their families got here and why. It might have been hundreds, or even thousands of years ago. And then there’s Lincoln. “Lincoln” Selmani.
“Now that’s my nickname,” Lincoln said. “The nickname I got when I arrived in Bethel in 1978.”
Lincoln drives a cab in Bethel, which he has done for the last 38 years. The nickname came shortly after he arrived.
“I come to Bethel and I rent a place with no running water. It was with a honey bucket on it, you know? So I had nowhere to shave and next thing I knew I grew out a beard, you know? After I grew out a beard, I came to look like Lincoln,” he said, referring to the 16th president of the United States.
Lincoln smiles as he talks on this cold, cloudless day, one hand on the steering wheel of his cab. He moves his vehicle with an automatic kind of calm that can only come from years of driving the same snow-covered roads over and over. Lincoln was the first Albanian to come to Bethel. Although he’s actually from Macedonia, he identifies as ethnically Albanian.
After moving to the United States when he was 16, looking for employment and adventure, he worked in a factory in Connecticut for a few years. His uncle lived there and helped him get his feet on the ground. That was 1972, one year after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was passed, although Lincoln wasn’t aware of it. He made a friend in the factory who gave him some advice.
“I had an American friend, he was kind of an older guy, and he says, ‘If I was young like you, I’d go to Alaska.’ I said, ‘What I’m going to do in Alaska?’” Lincoln recalled.
His friend told him about the pipeline and about the money to be made there. Lincoln was sold. He left Connecticut in 1975. He packed his few things, gathered all the money he had, got a car and drove across the country to Alaska. It took him eight days, and he’s been driving ever since.
Lincoln talks with people as they get in and out of the cab, conversations he tends to seamlessly incorporate into his story. When you look closely, you realize he doesn’t ever stop moving. You can tell from his story that for his whole life, he’s been in motion. He’s not making a series of actions, but instead one continuous action that’s gone on for decades.
He just kept driving when he got to Alaska. He spent time with cab driver friends in Anchorage, and he met an Alaska Native man who told him he could do well driving taxis in Bethel. So he got on a plane.
“The first time I arrive to Bethel, I look at Bethel and say, ‘Oh my God, this is the worst place I’ve ever been.’ So I say, ‘maybe I stay a week,'” Lincoln said. “Then from one week it comes to be one month, then from one month it comes to be one year. Then two years, three years, five years, 10 years, and there you go! 38 years in Bethel, Alaska, my friend.”
Eventually he brought his family to Bethel, and some of his friends and relatives moved here too. Four decades later, there are dozens of Albanians here. Many, like Lincoln, drive cabs, but some own restaurants, some are police and some are raising their children here. It’s hard to picture the town without Albanians.
The sun hits Lincoln’s coke bottle glasses and lights up the inside of the cab. His hands carry the smell of a cigarette that he must have enjoyed hours ago.
After he got used to it, he decided that living in Bethel was good for him. It became his home – as much of a home as anyone who moves around as much as he does can have, anyway.
“So I’m driving the cab, making a living paying the bills. Now I’m more happy. I’ve got my family here and all that,” Lincoln said. “This is it I guess, you know? Still driving till I retire, you know?”
Lincoln didn’t know it, but he came to Alaska at a time when it was being redefined, and he became part of that new identity. He says he doesn’t think much about politics, but he’s willing to try to explain why he came, and why other people come to the U.S.
“Everybody that comes to this country, he has a reason that he wants to come to this country,” Lincoln said. “Because people want to go to work, have food on the table, so his family doesn’t suffer, you know? That’s what the immigrants are coming for. They don’t come for the good looks, they just come to work and have a good life. The good life is just by working.”
He opens the window and lets in the cold, dry, Alaska air. He talks about a trip that he’s planning, tells a joke, laughs and then gets a call to pick someone up. He drives off into the white glare of Bethel’s afternoon sun, intensified by the newly fallen snow.
This story was originally published by KYUK Public Media and has been shared with permission.
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