Seattle and King County are offering affordable cab service to those with special needs, thanks to a company of African-born immigrants who see their service as both challenging and liberating, as well as a way of giving back to their adopted homeland.

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These two guys, Camel and Haji, are walking out of a mosque.

They’re both cabbies, hustling around Seattle night and day, mistaken for illiterate, barely earning enough cash to survive, paying rent to operate under someone else’s precious taxi license.

Camel says to his friend, “I’m tired of the driving and all that. Is there anything we can do to get more money?”

It just so happens, King County is considering an experiment to start an elite taxi squad with special licenses to carry wheelchair clients on demand. A nice niche, if you can get it.

And Haji knows this attorney who’s going to explain the whole thing, that afternoon. Camel (pronounced ka-MEL) Sellam sits through the meeting for two hours, and thinks things over.

He’s convinced: This is a chance to work for ourselves!

Word gets around.

A motley crew of African immigrants — from Somalia, Ethiopia, Algeria, Uganda — form a company and call it Washington Accessible Taxi, or WAT. Yellow Cab agrees to dispatch the calls. The team beats a couple other groups to win the special licenses. The Metro Transit division of the county Department of Transportation loans WAT eight used vans that have side-loading ramps.

That was two years ago.

Since then, the drivers have earned a reputation for giving the sort of legendary service that built famous Seattle companies such as Nordstrom and Starbucks.

To prove they can be counted on, drivers have detoured half an hour to accept an $8 fare. Taken out-of-towners to dialysis at 2 a.m. while serving the Little People of America convention in SeaTac. Shuttled elderly folks to the polls for free on Election Day.

And to grow the business, they pooled their own cash to buy eight more vans. Now, 32 partners drive their yellow vans around-the-clock, picking up other fares in between those wheelchair clients who need them to get around quickly.

“They are the most beautiful fraternity of men,” observes Henry Aronson, a former Port of Seattle commissioner and the attorney who helped them organize.

Nonetheless, they might lose their franchise soon.

IT’S 20 DEGREES and 4:59 a.m. when Ahmed Ibrahim leaves his town house in the Rainier Valley and turns on the ignition in the yellow van.

Good fortune awaits along Martin Luther King Jr. Way South.

“He’s open! Hot coffee! Doughnuts,” Ibrahim says, pulling up to Western Donuts. “I had a headache last night. I couldn’t sleep — I need energy to start the day.” Ibrahim, who works six days a week, is in awe of the shop owner, who started at 2:30 in the morning.

Ibrahim slurps a latte, listening to public radio as he passes a weary apartment complex where he used to live before putting in 500 hours of sweat equity with Habitat for Humanity to pay toward the town house.

He grew up in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, the son of a nurse and a businessman, and attended school in a tall brick building. When civil war broke out, he could hear artillery in nearby neighborhoods.

The family fled south, riding atop cargo in a caravan of large trucks, protected by men holding AK-47s. He was 14.

They wound up in Kenya, subsisting on United Nations rations of flour, sugar, grain and oil, plus occasional corn and tomatoes sold by farmers. He helped dig latrines in the bush.

“I don’t want anyone in the world to live in refugee camps, but all the time, 24/7, there are refugee camps somewhere in the world. When I see on the news, sometimes the same situation I was in, I — my stomach gets sick.”

Eat all your food, he tells his children. People are starving in Africa. There’s no direct connection, but Ibrahim expects them to grow up as global citizens.

He reached the U.S. in 1997, where he assembled computers in Minneapolis and studied at technical college before he was laid off and moved to Seattle. He would prefer to study radiology, but the need to earn interferes.

Ibrahim furiously pushes buttons on a small “bid screen,” which lists incoming calls and their geographic zones, trying to claim them first. He wins a few profitable trips to the airport. Then, finally, a special-needs call comes up. It’s to a Central Area living complex, where an older woman named Mabel awaits.

Mabel is in a walker but tilting, barely coherent through the gaps in her teeth. “Be careful, there’s ice here,” Ibrahim murmurs as he escorts her. They drive seven blocks to a bank. The meter says $8.75 but Mabel pushes $12 at him. He tries in vain to hand back the extra.

“I did not want to take even one penny of the tip,” he says.

Another call pops on the screen. Down in Federal Way, someone in a wheelchair is stranded outside a grocery store. The dispatchers forbid him to go, citing an obsolete record that his ramp was broken. Ibrahim calls two supervisors to argue they must send him, even though he knows it will surely be a money-losing run. “It doesn’t matter to me that it takes 20 minutes or 30 minutes to serve the call,” he tells them, nibbling a coconut doughnut that’s now eight hours old. The reason he’s on the road, he insists, is to answer these calls.

So he zips off to the store to look for the client. Finding nobody, he trolls two miles on the streets, goes back in the store to ask a manager, studies the parking lot.

No wheelchair customer.

“At least I did my part,” he says. “Lucky, the traffic wasn’t bad.”

Ibrahim, 33, has two children at Van Asselt Elementary and two in preschool. “Any time they see a yellow van, they say, ‘Daddy, is that your job?’ ” he says. “I ask them all the time, what do they want to be.” Last fall he cut back his hours so he could bring his 4-year-old son, Elias, to Seattle Children’s for treatment. Elias has abdominal cancer; the chemotherapy is extremely painful. Elias has been telling his dad he would like to become a children’s doctor. “I want them to have a better life,” Ibrahim says. “I want the four of them to become doctors, lawyers.” Not taxi drivers. “I don’t want them to ever consider having an un-professional job.”

THE CABDRIVER’S job takes more skill and smarts than most people know. There is the nerve-wracking business of finding your way through the area’s confounding street layouts and reacting to dozens of unpredictable traffic situations every day — all the while monitoring bid screens and keeping track of which of the county’s 84 dispatching zones you’re in. Because the city restricts incoming cabs to avoid flooding downtown streets, the cabbies maintain a Seattle license as well as one for the county.

Some of the WAT drivers have advanced degrees. Between calls most of them are scanning newspapers and listening to the radio, keeping up with the trials of the Alaskan Way Viaduct one minute, Barack Obama’s foreign policy the next. Typically, these drivers fell into the taxi business after losing some other job, or having a hassle with immigration. In better circumstances, the WAT leaders could just as well be CEOs, says Aronson. But as it is, they’ve found some intellectual stimulation in this new enterprise, enough so that it’s kept some from quitting.

There are financial challenges, too, in staying on the move at all hours.

At first, the drivers paid $1,150 a month, per cab, for insurance. That was a sixth of all fare collections, company records show — a huge bite to men who typically earn $40,000 a year.

When driving a fragile person, even a minor jolt can aggravate an existing injury or disease. Few would want to take on such risks. But the WAT drivers have done it well, as client Mickey Gendler affirms. Gendler, who was paralyzed in 2007 after his bicycle wheel stuck in the grating of the Montlake Bridge, says his driver was aware of Gendler’s injury-related nausea problem and responded by taking care to avoid potholes and drive more slowly to minimize any upset.

The county has received not one complaint against WAT drivers. A short customer survey found 32 satisfied, only one neutral.

And in the city’s fiscal year ending last September, the cabbies reported just $1,746 in damage, or 1.25 percent of what they paid in premiums.

There was one accident in the early months, when a van was rear-ended and totaled. The other guys talked it over, decided it wasn’t their driver’s fault, and chipped in for a replacement van.

WAT’s office manager, Mohamed Mohamud, went looking for a better insurance deal. He found a broker, Tyler Lehmann of Kirkland, who talked a company into hammering the price down by half. Still, at about 500 trips a month, the private wheelchair clientele makes up less than a fifth of the company business — not enough to thrive. It helps that both Metro and the Seattle School District trust WAT enough to send people with special needs when other transportation isn’t available.

Seeing the drivers’ industry and ambition, says Lehmann, “you come away impressed. They want to succeed. It’s not just a job for them. It’s about a mission, maybe.”

IN THE SPRING of 2007, Kenneth and Bobbie Kincaid of Burien were ailing and in need of rides. A former coal miner and Boeing worker, Kenneth had had strokes; Bobbie struggled with diabetes, neuropathy and weight. He could no longer help her into their pickup truck. They moved to an adult group home.

Bobbie began using the Access service. One day after a morning appointment with her doctor in Burien, she was left waiting for hours until a van picked her up so she could visit her husband at a nearby hospital.

She didn’t get home until 8 that night, says daughter Andrea Kincaid. “Mom was really kind of scared to get out after that.”

Another daughter, Eileen, heard about the yellow vans and tried calling for one. Some dispatchers, unfamiliar with the service, tried to dissuade the family or sent a regular cab, she says.

But that summer, when a cab was needed to get Kenneth to his mother’s 102nd birthday party in Des Moines, Elias Shifow of WAT took the call — and changed everything.

Shifow would phone ahead to confirm appointments, gently fasten safety belts, roll chairs all the way to the doorstep — all off the meter. On Muslim holidays he arranged for a few Christians in WAT to substitute.

Leaning past the steering wheel in rimless spectacles, Shifow cuts a scholarly profile. His serenity saved him years ago when a Seattle man pointed a gun in his face while threatening the lady in back of Shifow’s cab. So he doesn’t mind a few extra moments to load a wheelchair.

The daughters started calling Access for routine trips, Elias’ cellphone for crucial ones.

When Kenneth Kincaid died in March 2008, Shifow chauffeured his widow to the funeral.

“We didn’t need to ride along with her,” Andrea Kincaid recalls. “We trust them, and know she’ll be safe.”

ON AN ICY SUNDAY in December, 14 drivers are gathered in Tukwila at the Safari restaurant, chosen because it offers Somali fish with yellow rice and Ethiopia’s spongy injera bread topped with dollops of wat, a meat-and-onion stew.

Omar Hussein shares dire news: He’s heard that Craig Leisy, the city of Seattle’s cab overseer, is leaning toward putting the wheelchair-cab licenses into a lottery.

“We do not know what will happen after this. So we will do whatever we can to make sure this service continues. Forever,” he tells the men. “We’ve clearly illustrated there is a demand for wheelchair-accessible taxi services in Seattle and King County. The city and county know that. How we make this permanent, is our struggle.”

Across from him sits Aronson — the bulldog who fought the now-abandoned Seattle Monorail Project. Aronson reminds them that Leisy’s word isn’t final; the decision will go through layers of bureaucracy, maybe up to Mayor Greg Nickels. Instead of a lottery, they will seek a “request for proposals,” and apply as a group. The team has matured from allegiance to their individual vehicles to allegiance toward each other. Not one has quit, unusual in the cab business.

“You have a good record,” Aronson tells them. “Our position is going to be that the care of the disabled and handicapped will not be left to a lottery.”

Drivers share stories about their job. Some joke they’re not overworked, since many seem to have made time to produce four, five, even seven children. “We Somali people, we’re trying to make up the lost kids from the war,” Ali Muhidin says.

Laughter aside, the men face a dire situation. Two years of striving could all be for nothing if the county goes to a lottery system, wiping out WAT’s monopoly on wheelchair taxis.

Leisy doesn’t recall telling drivers about the lottery question. Anyway, he wants to see data from the temporary project, and an oversight committee of users will have a say. When WAT drivers bought those eight additional vans, Leisy had warned they weren’t guaranteed a permanent franchise. Generally, Leisy has also pointed out, lotteries are fairest to all drivers. Not one new permanent taxi license has been issued in Seattle since 1990; and because each can be worth six figures, they will be in high demand.

When it created the experiment, King County didn’t advertise the special vans, because even WAT’s 16 vehicles are not enough to meet the demand. Now, it appears likely there will be a moderate increase, to 30 wheelchair-taxi licenses, this year.

“If that comes about, the first 16 ought to go to the guys that are doing it now,” says Frank Dowgwilla, manager of Puget Sound Dispatch and a former submarine commander. “To take it away from them — even the thought of taking it away from them, I think, is wrong.” Without them, he says, there would be no project.

To the drivers sharing a meal, this political drama isn’t mainly about money. It’s not just about them assimilating, either.

Rather, it’s about honoring all the generations of immigrants who’ve come before, giving respect even as they are earning it.

“A lot of people helped me to get here,” says Fentahun Amare, an Ethiopian native. “So for me, it’s not just staying at home, but going out and helping people. It makes me happy.”

In their quiet way, they are answering the new president’s call: picking themselves up, dusting themselves off, and beginning the work of remaking America.

Mike Lindblom is The Seattle Times’ transportation reporter. He can be reached at mlindblom@seattletimes.com. Thomas James Hurst is a Times staff photographer.