If there’s someone who encompasses all the qualities of a survivor, it’s 35-year-old Oumarou Idrissa.
Idrissa made headlines last week after being featured in the New York Times cover interview with Rihanna. The reporter was in an Uber on the way to meet with Rihanna when she found out that her driver had also previously met the pop star.
Apart from Rihanna, Idrissa says he has met multiple celebrities because of his work as an Uber Black driver. He’s driven the Jenner sisters, Amber Rose and countless other celebrities around town. He’s also been invited to exclusive, celebrity-filled parties by the people he drives.
In addition to driving, Idrissa also makes money by coaching youth soccer. He regularly sends money back home to his 21 siblings in his home country of Niger.
“I always say that America saved my family’s life,” Idrissa tells NextShark.
Idrissa grew up in poverty in Niger as the fifth child of 25 siblings, four of whom died due to health complications. He was raised by three mothers because his father had three wives. His house was made of mud and had no running water, electricity or bathrooms. He explains:
“We don’t have those American-style bathrooms. We had to go outside and dig a big hole about 25 to 30 meters deep on the ground to sit on. Then we’d cover it up after we were done. When we needed water, we’d have to dig a hole in the ground to find it.”
Since his family was poor, Idrissa had to start working at the tender age of 11. He sold bread in order to make money to buy his own clothes and to fulfill other essential needs. His father was a driver for the government and made $100 a month, barely enough to support his family. However, as Idrissa explains:
“We don’t have much, but we have each other. That keeps us strong and motivates us to to keep going.”
In 1998, Idrissa’s entire house crumbled after a rainstorm. His family was forced to live in a local school until they could build a new house to live in. A year later, his father retired and his brother got a U.S. visa to go to the United States. From then on, Idrissa’s brother began supporting the family by sending money back home. Idrissa explains:
“When you go to America, people in your home country expect you to make a lot of money and get rich. They don’t know the struggle you have to go through in order to make it.”
In 2004, Idrissa was able to attain a student visa to go to the U.S. He arrived in New York City for the first time on Christmas Eve penniless. Initially, he had $400 but was scammed out of it by hotel staff during a stop in Morocco. Because he had no money, he ran into trouble going through immigration and almost got sent back home until his brother came and claimed him.
Idrissa had been planning on attending the University of Idaho with his student visa, but with no money he was forced to instead work to survive. Life in New York City was a struggle for Idrissa; he lived in a Bronx studio apartment with 11 other people who were all from his home country. He recounts:
“We had mattresses all over this one small room, 10 guys and 1 women. I wanted to go back home. I was crying. There were so many subways and too many people. I’ve never seen stuff like that. I don’t like the smell, the food, I couldn’t eat anything. My first job was doing security at a local clothing store in the Bronx. I made $3.75 an hour. That was my first job.”
Money came through a security job that paid him $3 an hour. Part of his duties included shoveling snow, the first snow he had ever encountered in his life. The hours were so grueling that he once passed out on the subway due to exhaustion and was rush to the hospital.
After about five months in New York, Idrissa wanted a change and decided to pursue his dreams of going to Los Angeles, California. Ever since he was young, Idrissa had a huge passion for soccer and had aspirations to play professionally in his home country but couldn’t because there was no funding.
“I wanted to go to school and play soccer. I couldn’t do that in New York, so I decided to go to L.A. The day I landed in, I felt good. The weather was nice.”
During this time, Idrissa started learning English by watching TV shows, talking to people and attending classes. He was able to play some pickup games at a local field and actually ended up making some side cash because people would bet on games. He explains:
“On Sundays, if I score a goal, they’d give me $30, so I’d try to score as many goals as I can just to make more money. I made a living like that (laughs).”
Idrissa was so good that someone from the pickup game introduced him to a soccer coach from Long Beach City College, who wanted Idrissa to play for him. Unfortunately, he had to be a student to play for the team but he didn’t have enough money at the time to enroll. He was so poor that he would sleep in a local laundromat a friend owned and shower in the locker rooms at school. He explains:
“I didn’t tell anyone about my problems because sometimes when you tell people about your struggles, either they abandon you or they don’t respect you. So I never told people about how I was living.”
After telling the coach about his predicament, Idrissa was hired as a youth soccer coach and soccer referee. It was at work that he befriended an older coworker named David who would go on to become a pivotal person in his life. Idrissa recounts:
“He took me to Long Beach City College one day and paid my whole tuition. He said, ‘Go ahead, I want you to go play soccer and go study.’ ”
Idrissa enrolled in college in 2008 and started playing soccer for Long Beach City College. His best moment came when he saved a crucial penalty kick that sent his team to the second round of the playoffs. Things seemed to be looking up but it was all short-lived when he had to drop out of school after his student visa renewal application was denied because he had overstayed his first one. He says:
“I was hiding for five years. Every night, I was thinking they were coming to deport me.”
Those years were tough for Idrissa as he says he repeatedly suffered police harassment, especially during the times when he was biking to and from school:
“They thought I was a drug dealer or something. They told me to put my hands behind my back, they handcuffed me, then pushed me onto the squad car. Then he slammed me onto the ground and started patting me down. He asked me, ‘Do you have drugs? Are you on probation?’ I didn’t even know what probation was. I couldn’t even ride a bike in Long Beach without getting stopped. I got stopped like four times. Two of those times, they were very aggressive and I got hurt. I was traumatized. I stopped riding a bike because I didn’t want to keep getting stopped.”
Fortunately for Idrissa, he received a green card after falling in love with a woman whom he married and later divorced.
During his time in the U.S., Idrissa has also found side gigs doing modeling work. His first gig was as an extra in the bank and strip club scenes in Jay Z and Beyoncé’s music video for “Part II (On the Run).” He also says he appeared in “Straight Outta Compton” as an extra.
Idrissa’s life changed dramatically when he found a job listing on Craigslist to become an Uber driver. As an UberX and Uber Black driver, he’s been able to ride around with some of L.A.’s biggest celebrities, some of whom he says he didn’t even recognize while driving. He’s even been occasionally invited to exclusive parties packed with celebrities, including the Jenner sisters.
“Kendall and Kylie Jenner are so respectful in person, I swear. I met Kendall so many times. I even went to her birthday party one time. Most of my clients when they go to parties, they’ll let me go in the party with him.”
Idrissa says that on a good week he will make about $1,200 — that’s after the $700 cut he has to pay to the man who hired him. He sends money back home to his family in Niger and also helps take care of a couple strangers who are blind and can’t take care of themselves.
“My life was never about me; it was about my people: my family, friends and neighbors back home. When I was a kid, there were times when we’d skip lunch just to save enough food to eat dinner. There have been countless times I’d go to sleep hungry and I’d cry. So every two weeks, I will send money back home to my family and friends. I don’t need to be asked to send money, because you know what you left there. If I send $650, it will feed at least 20 people for a month.”
“I’m always happy, no matter what. That’s one thing about me or about us, Africans in general. Right here you see people take things for granted for what they have. Depression doesn’t exist over there. They have nothing, but you don’t see them getting depressed. You don’t see me getting depressed or sad. Those words don’t exist to me. Even on days I don’t even have $1 to eat, I don’t go down. I keep going. You have to be strong. Even after all these years I’ve been here, I’m still hustling. I’m still trying to find a nice place for myself. In L.A. it’s tough to find a good place to live.”
Idrissa plans to write a book about his experiences someday and continues to coach youth soccer with the hopes of helping improve soccer’s stature in the U.S.
Follow Oumarou Idrissa on Twitter.