Just four years ago, Kyaw Kyee was jobless and languishing in a Thai refugee camp. Today, he owns Hill Tribe Transportation – a fast-growing taxi business on Buffalo’s West Side.
“Hill Tribe is another example of the refugee entrepreneurial happenings in Buffalo,” said Eva M. Hassett, executive director of the International Institute of Buffalo. “They are a great role model.”
In an industry dominated by larger and long-established livery firms, Hill Tribe is making a name for itself by targeting the area’s burgeoning refugee population. It provides transportation for the International Institute and clients of Journey’s End Refugee Services. The car service is also used largely by local Burmese and other refugees.
“We are grateful we are here to help refugees like us,” Kyee said.
While the fledgling company has found a niche market, it does serve the entire region – from the suburbs to the airports to Ontario.
“A lot of refugees use us, but we go everywhere and pick up everybody,” Kyee said. “We do business with everybody, and we have senior citizens discounts and student discounts.”
The family business operates around the clock, and accepts reservations on its website. It averages 20 to 25 calls a day.
“We work all day long,” Kyee said.
Kyee, a Burmese refugee, arrived in Buffalo in 2008. He founded Hill Tribe Transportation last year. He didn’t want to be on his feet for hours, working shifts in a factory or restaurant, so he became a taxi driver in 2010.
“I love driving job because it is better than standing eight hours,” he said.
After working for other taxi companies, Kyee decided to start his own business.
“I learned the business from places I worked and from other drivers I worked with,” he said.
He turned his 2011 Toyota Camry into his first taxi, and Hill Tribe was off and running. The company got its name because of the Burmese fascination with nature, and Kyee hails from the Asian country’s Hill tribe.
Kyee put his relatives to work as drivers and dispatchers. Kyee and his three sons are the company’s drivers. Other family members chip in with administrative duties.
By saving and pooling their resources, the family added three vehicles, including two minivans.
The International Institute has called on Hill Tribe to supplement its transportation services as needed. Kyee is a former client of the agency.
Hassett said Hill Tribe is able to provide newer refugees the support services they need. For example, drivers for Hill Tribe know to knock on the doors and search through apartment buildings for customers when they arrive for pickups.
“Being a refugee, [Kyee] understands how sometimes people from another culture need extra support,” Hassett said.
The institute is looking to hire Hill Tribe to transport its clients to jobs in locations where public transportation is not available.
Additionally, the company is used by Social Services to carry Medicaid patients to doctors appointments.
Kyee said his business is growing, and the company is becoming well known.
“It’s going really good. We get more and more customers,” he said. “We hand out our business cards every time.”